Friday, January 10, 2014

Algae to Crude in Minutes

Reforming has been around for some time and what makes this interesting is the simple use of algae, although initial concentration is surely involved as a first step but that can be a simple centrifuge.  One prefers to minimize the amount of water been used.  For the same reason, the output steam is high grade and can be used to operate a turbine while the spent water can be fed into a heat exchanger to pre warm the feed stock.

Producing sufficient feedstock is another matter and hardly a trifle.  It requires steady nutrification and ample CO2 which comes together in certain industrial settings quite well but not easily otherwise.  It is the duckweed solution again which works just great next to an industrial scaled piggery.

The good news is that algae based feedstock converts so quickly.  Thus a plant can expected to be easily made small allowing for small operations.  Centrifuged slurry filling up a feedstock tank is easily acquired and drawing that stock slowly through a heated pipe is better than a tank cooker.  Again this becomes a more tractable engineering challenge.

Algae to crude oil: Million-year natural process takes minutes in the lab
December 24, 2013

Engineers at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have created a continuous process that produces useful crude oil minutes after harvested algae is introduced. This new process does not require drying out the algae, which grows in water, saving time and energy that would be otherwise wasted. The final product can be refined into aviation fuel, diesel, or gasoline.

The process mimics some of the conditions that originally turned prehistoric plant material into fossil fuel deep within the earth – high pressures and temperatures.

Algae, an aquatic plant, has long been considered as a biofuel source, but the steps needed to turn a wet, green plant into clear, burnable fuel have been both expensive and time-consuming. The algae had to be processed in a series of steps, one of which involved drying it out and removing all the water, which might be 80 percent of the biomass. Then solvents were used to extract energy-rich hydrocarbons from the dried material.

The PNNL team created a continuous process that starts with the wet algae and subjects the entire mass – water, algae, and all – to high temperatures and pressures, in this case, 350ºC (662ºF) and 3,000 psi.

"It's a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher," said Laboratory Fellow Douglas Elliott, the leader of the research team. "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."

The products of the process include crude oil, which can be further refined into aviation fuel, gasoline, or diesel fuel (in tests, the process achieved between 50 and 70 percent conversion of the algae’s carbon into fuel); clean water, which can be used to grow more algae; fuel gas, which can be burned to make electricity or cleaned to make natural gas; and nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – needed for growing algae.

Genifuel Corporation has licensed the process, and has been working with the team at the lab since 2008. The company intends to team with some industrial partners to create a pilot plant using this process to make biofuel in industrial quantities.

The process was detailed in a recent paper published in the journal Algal Research. More information on the technology is available in the video below.

Source: PNNL
About the Author

Francis Govers is the designer of over 20 land, sea, air and space vehicles and teaches robotics and the design of self-driving cars. He spent 10 years at NASA, helped design the International Space Station, participated in the DARPA Grand Challenge, and managed the only Zeppelin operating in the US. As a commercial pilot, writer, artist, musician, engineer, race car nut and designer, Francis has a serious addiction to building things that frequently gets him into trouble.   All articles by Francis X Govers III

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