From Algae to Oil in Minutes, Not Millions

(U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

(U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

The Earth moves at its own pace.  Unfortunately, that pace is not very human-lifespan friendly.

For example, it can literally take millions of years for fossil fuels to become the right level of goop needed for us to turn it into fuel.  So what do we do when we have a need to fill, and not millions of years to wait?

We create our own fuel, of course.

Engineers at the Department of Energy‘s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have devised a way to turn algae into crude oil in less than an hour.  That oil can then be refined into gasoline that can run engines.

Are you ready for this?  Because mark my words, it’s about to change everything.


James (Jim) Oyler is the appropriately named president of the Genifuel Corporation.

He started the company in 2006 with the original focus to produce useable fuels from algae.  He’s also a veteran, interestingly.

From space shuttles to biofuel revolutionaries; it’s amazing where you’ll find military veterans.

I sat down with Jim to find out exactly what this process is, where it’s going, and how it’s going to change everything we know about biofuel and fossil fuel dependence.

So tell me a little bit about the chemical process that produces crude oil in minutes from harvested algae.

“Well, it is a basically simple process that uses temperature, pressure, and time to accomplish the chemical conversions,” Jim explains.  “A lot of people think of fossil fuels as, you know, dinosaurs and giant ferns and things.  There is some of that, but the bulk of the organic matter was algae.  Gradually the organic matter converts into slightly different forms, which make up the material that comes out as crude oil or natural gas.”

So you’re duplicating that process?

Algae sludge, anyone? (Image provided by PNNLGov, research has been licensed by Genifuel Corp)

Algae sludge, anyone? (Image provided by PNNLGov, research has been licensed by Genifuel Corp)

“Yes.  We’re taking organic matter – in this case we’re talking about algae – and we make it into a water slurry so the algae is mixed in water, about 20 percent algae in the water.  Then we simply pump that up to a high pressure and heat it.  After it’s up at pressure we heat it and we maintain it and hold it at that temperature and keep it moving so it mixes with itself for about 20 to 30 minutes.  And during that time the chemical conversions can take place so that the oil is produced in the form of crude oil.”

 This process is almost identical to the natural development of fossil crude oil.

Does this create crude oil that can be used right away, or does it need to be converted somehow?

“It can go straight into existing infrastructure.  This is something that everybody’s familiar with.  We know how to do this.  And it’s a very efficient process, so being able to just provide a drop in addition to the fossil fuel supply is obviously interesting and important.”

Does this work with just one type of algae?

“It’s all algae, but it’s actually much more than that and much better than that.  It’s really anything organic.”

Wow.  So…anything?

“We could use waste materials.  So things that are sort of hard to process, hard to get rid of, like food processing waste or animal waste, like cow manure from dairy or feedlots; waste from human-generated activities, like what’s in the barrels that you put out to the curb or in waste-water solids, which is otherwise known as sewage; and all kinds of things.”

When you put it that way, I guess we are just wasting energy resources (that was a crude joke, if you know what I mean).

“When you start looking around there’s lots of wet waste materials that always present sort of difficult challenge to how you get rid of them.  They’re usually messy, often smelly, and, therefore, you really do have to do something, but you have to do something that’s acceptable environmentally as well as cost-effective.  And we can take those kinds of materials and convert them directly into oil.”

The reason they focused on algae, he says, is because algae has the potential of being an energy crop.  That is, you can grow it specifically to make energy.

"I need fuel!"  This process reminds me of the machine from Back to the Future II that Doc Brown has on the Delorean. (Photo from Back to the Future II, © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved)

“I need fuel!” This process reminds me of the machine from Back to the Future II that Doc Brown has on the Delorean. (Photo from Back to the Future II, © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved)


So how much algae is needed to produce a gallon of crude oil?

“It’s a continuous process, so you’re feeding in your feedstock all the time and your resulting oil is flowing out in a flow continuously.  It’s 24/7.  But it’s easiest to measure the yield as if it were dry.  So if we had dry algae and we had, say, 100 pounds of dry algae, we would get, on average, about 50 pounds of oil.”

That’s a 50% yield.  Which, in case you didn’t realize, is pretty spectacular.  Another cool fact here is that the algae is processed wet, so after all the biological material has been processed, you’re left with clean, sterile, nice water that can be reused.


Jim goes on to say that this process does not affect the food supply.  They’re not using valuable farmland to do it.  They can grow how much or how little they want, allowing them to produce usable and significant amounts of fossil fuels or equivalents.

But could it replace fossil fuels?

“We could produce up to twenty percent of that.  So it’s not going to totally replace fossil fuels, but ten to twenty percent of the fossil oil and gas is actually a huge amount of energy.  It would make a real difference in the global energy economy.”

Who funds this project?

“This has been bit by bit developed over more than 30 years, and a lot of that has been funded by the Department of Energy.  There has been some private funding, but most of it has been DOE.”

What else can this process do?

“There’s actually two parts to this and we haven’t talked about.  The second part is we also make natural gas.  So, we make the oil, but we do also make natural gas from this process.  That process was developed along the way here, too.  The two processes have moved along through this 30-year period.”

Do you hope this process will become commercially available?

“The goal is to make this a commercial contributor to our energy supply.  I mean, there’s absolutely no interest from anybody on keeping this bottled up.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  We want to get this out into the world and commercially important, that is doing it on a large scale as quickly as possible.”


 The PNNL team combined several chemical steps into one continuous process that starts with an algae slurry that contains as much as 80 to 90 percent water.  (Image provided by PNNLGov, research has been licensed by Genifuel Corp)

Engineers have created a chemical process that produces useful crude oil just minutes after engineers pour in harvested algae — a verdant green paste with the consistency of pea soup. The PNNL team combined several chemical steps into one continuous process that starts with an algae slurry that contains as much as 80 to 90 percent water.(Image provided by PNNLGov, research has been licensed by Genifuel Corp)

This process takes wet waste materials and purpose-grown energy crops and converts them into fuel, into natural gas, into sterile water.  It’s a three-strike benefit here, and it’s about to change how we see energy production and distribution in the nation.

The world, even.

“This [process] can take the whole plant that’s grown by photosynthesis – or algae in this case – and you use everything.  You’re not just squeezing out a little bit of oil from a little part of it.  It’s using everything to make oil.  That’s where the efficiency and ultimately the lowered cost comes from.”

What are some of the ways this could help with the military?

“One way to view this is as a technology to process waste and make usable fuel.  Let’s take an FOB (forward operating base) for example.  One of the big things that we produce in forward deployment is mountains of plastic bottles.  You could put them in the system to be processed.  You could put in the waste from the mess hall.  You could also put in latrine waste, which is a big problem, especially in forward locations.”

It goes beyond that, though.  Far beyond.

“The obvious answer is that the algae-to-crude process produces oil that can be refined in existing refineries to produce drop-in fuels such as jet fuel and diesel, or even gasoline.  In the big picture, that’s much more important to the military than base operations.”

Jim even says that service members can supplement feedstock, like algae, with other organic waste products, like agricultural waste.  For example, poppy waste from the fields in Afghanistan could provide a new resource to service members.  It would also give new meaning to the definition of flower power.


When will we start seeing these processing plants spring up?

“I think the initial deployment will be modest, moderate-sized systems.  I do not see this system ever being the size of like a huge oil refinery.”

So when can you expect to get your own personal energy-and-oil maker?  It’s not there yet, but Jim says they’re walking in that direction.

“Could each home basically have a little system like this, where all the waste from that home goes into it and you get either oil or natural gas out?  It would be easier if it was the natural gas, because you can just use that as it is.  Or maybe even have a generator there and make your own electricity, so you’re not pulling all your electricity off the grid?  I think that is possible.”

He does say, though that he thinks they ought to go with the other step first, the medium-sized units.

“Get the cost out of it.  Be able to ruggedize it and make it consumer friendly and something that just won’t ever break down.  Get it to the point where it’s completely reliable with no attendance; it just runs.  I think that’s going to take time.  And I think it is possible.”

A possibility that may very well change everything for humanity, and the way we use our fuel sources, forever.

When it comes down to it, this is all about what keeps us up and running.

“Energy is the most fundamental thing in the universe,” Jim says.  “We only exist because the energy balance between the sun and the Earth happens to be just perfect.  Energy is a tough thing to master.  But this process?  This is an important step.”

I could not agree more.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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