The use of biomass for fuel is nothing new. The most common application of this is the use of corn to make ethanol. An even better alternative that could save land, water, energy, and reduce waste is the use of algae for fuel. Algae is able to be grown in large amounts with limited space and water, as well as in a variety of environments, making it a perfect source for fuel production. It also does not mess with the food industry which is part of the controversy for using corn or soybeans for fuel production. It has also been found that algae based fuel most closely resembles the composition of the crude oil that we pump out from under the ocean. The petroleum that we pump from the ground is created through a natural heat facilitated process that requires millions of years to complete.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, have discovered a way to replicate and speed up the heating process so that a small mixture of algae and water can be turned into a kind of crude oil in less than an hour. This oil can be readily refined into usable gases, such as, jet fuel, gasoline or diesel, and because its composition is so similar to petrol it can be refined in existing facilities. The byproducts of this process are chemical elements and minerals that can be used to generate electricity, natural gas, or fertilizer to grow more algae. To add onto that an analysis has shown that the wide scale use of this process on a commercial scale could lead to biofuel being sold for as low as two dollars a gallon.
The U.S. Department of Energy also estimated that to scale up algae production to meet the needs of the nation would require only 15,000 square miles of land (about the size of Maryland), as opposed to the use of soybeans for biofuel which would require setting aside half of the countries land. This fuel is clean because when burned it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that was taken out by the plants unlike the ancient carbon dioxide that fossil fuels release that haven’t been in the atmosphere for millions of years. It also does not need to be mixed with gasoline like ethanol.
The process of turning algae into oil starts with algae mixed with water, which is then continuously sent down a long tube that hold the algae at 660 degrees Fahrenheit and 3,000 psi for thirty minutes while stirring it. This pressure cooker breaks down the algae and reforms it into oil. This process does require a lot of heat energy, but they have put in recovery systems to maximize heat by cycling it back in resulting in an overall net gain in energy.
Something as strange as using algae for fuel seems very far fetched, but in actuality it is completely possible. As more research and technology is developed the wide scale use of the algal fuel will become more and more feasible. At some point we will run out of fossil fuels and algae is very realistic alternative.