Oil is going green — literally. Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have discovered a way to simplify the process of turning algae and water into crude oil. The process, called hydrothermal liquefaction, has long been touted as a viable way to produce more energy. In fact, most of the oil that’s drilled from the ground was formed by algae, compacted and heated over the course of millions of years until it transformed into petroleum. But now scientists have figured out how to quickly reproduce the process in the lab, converting algae into oil in less than an hour.
“It’s a way of mimicking what happens naturally over an unfathomable length of time,” says lead investigator Douglas C. Elliott. “We’re just doing it much, much faster.”
So how does it work? PNNL researchers mix 20% algae with 80% water, and send the mixture down a tube at 660 degrees Fahrenheit and 3,000 psi for 30 minutes. The pressure cooker breaks down the algae and converts it into oil. An added bonus is that the process yields byproducts, such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen, which can be reused to generate more heat or fertilize the algae.
The same hydrothermal liquefaction process can also be used on other organic wastes, such as manure, sewage or compost, which could have big implications for recycling waste into energy all across the country. Researchers’ next challenge is figuring out how to make the process cheap. Algae-powered cars aren’t here yet, but they’re a bit closer thanks to this new innovation.