Douglas Elliott, a spokesman for the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL, located in Richland, WA) has announced a new and more efficient process for converting algae into petroleum products. Algae fuel research has been going on for years, but the processes developed to date have been inordinately expensive, mainly because the algae had to be thoroughly dried before the ensuing steps began, and because expensive chemicals were used, particularly hexane solvents. Additionally, the former processes were all batch processes, which made for too much down-time.
The new procedure yields a continuous flow of viscous crude oil liquid that can be further processed into gasoline, diesel fuel, and other consumables. The by-products are water containing nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — the key nutrients for growing more algae with which to continue the process.
From the announcement:
PNNL scientists and engineers simplified the production of crude oil from algae by combining several chemical steps into one continuous process. The most important cost-saving step is that the process works with wet algae.
“Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process; that cuts the cost a great deal,” said Elliott. “Then there are bonuses, like being able to extract usable gas from the water and then recycle the remaining water and nutrients to help grow more algae, which further reduces costs.”
the PNNL team works with the whole algae, subjecting it to very hot water under high pressure to tear apart the substance, converting most of the biomass into liquid and gas fuels. The system runs at around 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit) at a pressure of around 3,000 PSI, combining processes known as hydrothermal liquefaction and catalytic hydrothermal gasification.
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