Be excited, Earthlings, because science has a surprise for you. Engineers at the US 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.
Excited yet? Try wrapping your head around the implications of a breakthrough like this. As one of the most plentiful lifeforms on the planet, algae is a perfect candidate for conversion to biofuel. It’s especially good because the energy is packed pretty tightly into that green sludge. To replace all of the petroleum in the United States with algae fuel, you’d need a farm that took up just 0.42 per cent of the country’s landmass. By comparison, it would take up half of the United States to grow enough soybeans to replace petroleum with biodiesel.
Algae fuel is not a new idea, of course, and this is not the first time scientists have turned algae into fossil fuel. It is the first time they’ve done it so effortlessly and so quickly, however. Other methods require too much time and energy for the conversion to make sense as a petroleum replacement. The new process solves that problem. “It’s a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,” said Douglas Elliott, who led the research. “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.”
This magic gas could be coming to your local gas station sooner than you think. The Department of Energy already has a partner, Genifuel, working on commercializing the process and making the algae fuel competitive with what’s already on the market. But, boy, is it going to be futuristic when you pull up to a gas station and pump your tank full of algae. Talk about going green. [PNNL via FastCo]