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(72,631 posts)
Thu Dec 19, 2013, 01:45 AM Dec 2013

Scientists Cut Million-Year Natural Process To Convert Algae Into Crude Oil To About An Hour

Scientists cut million-year natural process to convert algae into crude oil to about an hour
By Travis Gettys - RawStory
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 9:11 EST


Engineers have sped up a naturally occurring process to make crude oil from algae from about a million years to just minutes.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory pumped a slurry of wet algae into a chemical reactor, which then subjects the biological material to very hot water under high pressure to tear it apart and convert it into liquid and gas fuels.

The resulting crude oil can then be conventionally refined into aviation fuel, gasoline or diesel fuel, the researchers reported in the journal Algal Research.

The team’s experiments converted more than 50 percent of the algae’s carbon into crude oil, sometimes up to 70 percent, in about one hour and created nothing more hazardous than an odor of dirty socks, rotten eggs and wood smoke from the processed biological material.

In fact, the leftover water and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium can be recycled to grow more algae...


More: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/12/18/scientists-cut-million-year-natural-process-to-convert-algae-into-crude-oil-to-about-an-hour/

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(4,795 posts)
1. So how much, if any, net energy was produced?
Thu Dec 19, 2013, 01:53 AM
Dec 2013
The system runs at more than 660 degrees Fahrenheit at about 3,000 pounds per square inch, combining processes known as hydrothermal liquefaction and catalytic hydrothermal gasification.

The system isn’t easy or cheap to build, but Elliott said cost savings later in the process justified the investment.

“It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,” Elliott said. “In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We’re just doing it much, much faster.”

When we wait a million years, we don't have to burn oil and coal to, well, er, make oil and coal. Im just curious what the net is. I understand the algae itself has energy (collected from the sun), whose storage needs to be converted to a form we prefer it to be in. But with all the processes required to do this (which cannot possibly be near 100% efficient), how viable could this be large scale compared to pursuing direct solar collection/storage/usage?


(6,154 posts)
2. Agreed that's the million dollar question here...
Thu Dec 19, 2013, 02:14 AM
Dec 2013

There have been a number of other promising looking clean alternatives to oil than I've seen. Most have failed on this ground.


(4,517 posts)
3. The point of using oil is that it is liquid and has a very high energy density.
Thu Dec 19, 2013, 02:29 AM
Dec 2013

This is effectively a backdoor fuel cell, but we would need to develop a renewable energy infrastructure to support the large scale production of enough product to mitigate the effect of peak oil. I somehow doubt that such a thing will occur without wide spread market disruptions that will likely lead to large scale social instability and resource stress conflicts that will likely lead to significant reductions in human population groupings and potential widespread radioactive contamination of the biosphere.


(29,798 posts)
5. Maybe better than 'fuel cell' would be identifying it as energy storage or as an energy carrier.
Thu Dec 19, 2013, 04:30 AM
Dec 2013

When we store energy we don't expect a surplus, we expect there to be some cost in terms of losses as it goes through the system of entering and leaving the storage medium.

As you say high energy density in a portable and easily retrievable medium are the characteristics important to liquid fuels applications. We can't build batteries that will store and deploy anywhere near the energy of liquid fuels, but for most applications where they are used we don't need to. Electricity is the most generally versatile energy carrier and with batteries can replace most petroleum used. But heavy duty applications like agriculture, air and sea transport will require liquid fuels for the foreseeable future.

When you run the numbers on liquid fuels for personal transportation though, you find their use in internal combustion engines are a source of huge inefficiencies which when eliminated with battery electric drive reduce the actual amount of energy input into the sector by about 80% to deliver the same amount of work.


(4,517 posts)
6. True, in a way oil is nothing more than stored solar power.
Thu Dec 19, 2013, 05:18 AM
Dec 2013

Conventional creates it without man made energy inputs, but they are energy inputs all the same. With this technology we can also use the existing distribution network and not worry about running into a wall with the world platinum supply.

This also ignores the other uses of oil. Namely plastics, which have revolutionized commercial goods manufacturing. In addition the majority of agricultural fertilizers are derived from natural gas sources. Not to mention mechanical lubricants, cutting oils, and bearing greases. Transit use is high at 70%, but the other 30% is also important (24% is industrial uses, while 5% is residential and the remainder is electrical production consumption).

As for inefficiencies, I'm not well versed enough in that subject to offer a literate critique. Though it would make sense to engage in efficiency upgrades in combination with a transition towards a viable total electric model. Which I suspect is already underway with the move towards fuel efficient sub compacts (Honda Fit), hybrids (Toyota Prius) and full electrics (Tesla). This does nothing to address global warming however, since the majority of the US summer peak electrical power production comes from coal and petroleum. Unless we want to talk about using nuclear as a bridge... that is unlikely to go over very well on this forum (or with you judging by your previous comments re Fukushima). Solar and wind are viable, but do we have the political and social will to do it (no and yes respectively). I personally prefer thermal solar techniques due to their enhanced ability to simulate baseload production. Can we ramp them up fast enough to fight peak oil, and transition our transportation infrastructure, while mitigating hydraulic fracturing that is contaminating the water table and fighting peak water, while banning neo-nictinoids (save the bees) and fighting monsanto's desire to own the concept of life and maintaining an agricultural output, all while maintaining our current way of life that if extended globally would consume 7 times the resources that the earth can currently provide...

I think the time for hard choices issued by hard (wo)men are at hand. We will need a strong hand to guide the flock before total destruction.


(29,798 posts)
8. It does a great deal to address global warming.
Thu Dec 19, 2013, 07:18 AM
Dec 2013

Most energy analysts working on a solution to carbon see us creating an energy system where electricity is the primary energy carrier with a distributed renewable energy grid at its core. Electric cars are a key element as they largely provide the needed load management and storage capability in addition to their transport function - and they do it while piggybacking on the capital investment already required for moving the personal transportation sector away from petroleum.

The nations outgoing top energy regulator (James Wellinghoff) sees the same picture I'm describing. He's on the record with a pretty strong opinion - we may never need another coal or nuclear plant in this country.

As for nuclear my position predated the meltdowns in Japan and is based on preference for the technologies that can most rapidly and efficiently move modern society away from carbon. It is an unnecessary diversion of time and money imo.

Here is what the CEO of NRG, one of the largest energy companies out there now believes:

NRG CEO: Power grid will soon be 'last resort'

By Ethan Howland Dec. 11, 2013 |

Dive Brief:
- In a few years, most power will come from distributed sources and the centralized power grid will become a "last resort," according to David Crane, NRG Energy's president and CEO.

- Utility power sales have entered an “inexorable decline,” the "massive excess capacity" needed to meet peak demand "will become unnecessary" and the need for new power plants and transmission infrastructure "will be eliminated," Crane posits.

- Crane says three trends will lead consumers to stop buying power from utilities: cheap rooftop solar, automated conservation and extreme weather.

- But Crane sees a possible compromise between utilities and their customers on solar. Utilities should buy back excess supply that coincides with peak use, instead of offering average power supply costs, Crane said. Solar customers should pay for grid use at night or on cloudy days.


He sees solar rapidly climbing to a 30% share of the electric supply.

For counterpoint, here are some remarks from another Crane, this time Christopher; the CEO of the nation's largest fleet of nuclear plants and vice-chair of NEI, the nuclear industry lobbying group.
Exelon's CEO: Analysts 'have it very wrong'
By Steve Daniels October 30, 2013

Facing deteriorating sentiment on Wall Street, Exelon Corp. CEO Christopher Crane today directly challenged analysts' views on his company and restated his confidence that the depressed wholesale power markets largely responsible for the Chicago-based utility giant's declining earnings will recover.

But, though Mr. Crane delivered it more pointedly than in the past, his message is one analysts have heard before, with no evidence afterward that the market fundamentals were changing. So this time Mr. Crane put a time limit on his patience: one year.

If wholesale power prices don't show signs of increasing by late next year, Exelon will begin shuttering power plants, he said on a call to discuss the company's third-quarter earnings, which surpassed analysts' expectations.

“We will shut down facilities that we do not see a path to long-term sustainable profitability,” Mr. Crane pledged.

Among the nuclear power plants regarded as the most vulnerable in that scenario...



(5,963 posts)
10. Even if we stopped using it as an energy source, we'd still need oil.
Thu Dec 19, 2013, 12:51 PM
Dec 2013

This could give us a cleaner option of getting it without destroying the landscape.


(6,785 posts)
12. That rotten egg smell is probably hydrogen sulfide.
Thu Dec 19, 2013, 05:11 PM
Dec 2013

Which is fairly dangerous. It is pretty common in industry and biology, so it isn't like it's creating something we don't know how to deal with.

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