Algae into Fuel

November 10, 2012

There are lots of reports on this around  the web. This one is more recent, and notable for the sobering estimate of the amount of land needed to grow sufficient algae to provide our liquid fuels.

One reason why its more likely future transportation needs will be met by diverse solutions, with more mass transit and electrification of cars, for instance, and exotic fuels like algae going for purposes like aviation, where, barring some breakthrough, electric solutions are difficult to envision.

Researchers from University of Michigan have developed a way to “pressure cook” algae for as little as one minute and transform up to 65 percent of the algae into biocrude. Phil Savage, a professor of chemical engineering at U of M, said the research team is trying to mimic the process nature uses when creating crude oil, and his algae of choice is green marine micro-alga.

To make their one-minute biocrude, Savage and Julia Faeth, a doctoral student in Savage’s lab, filled a steel pipe connector with 1.5 milliliters of wet algae, capped it and plunged it into 1,100-degree Fahrenheit sand. The small volume ensured that the algae was heated through. Previously the team heated the algae from 10 to 90 minutes and saw the best results when treating the algae for 10 to 40 minutes at 570 degrees. A small batch of algae can reach this temperature in one minute.

Savage and Faeth aren’t sure why the one-minute results so much better until they do more experiments. “My guess is that the reactions that produce biocrude are actually must faster than previously thought,” Savage surmised. Yet Faeth suggests that the fast heating might boost the biocrude by keeping unwanted reactions at bay. “For example, the biocrude might decompose into substances that dissolve in water, and the fast heating rates might discourage that reaction,” Faeth said.


13 Responses to “Algae into Fuel”

  1. mrsircharles Says:

    Unfortunately this carbon neutral technology has not yet got the full attention. Tests by German scientists found out that algae can produce up to ten times the energy per acre than conventional crops. The liquid with the algae is fed with CO2 from nearby power plants in vertical tubes. The system is quite cheap and promising.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      if the co2 is coming from power plants, then there is no gain, it just adds a step before releasing the carbon to the atmosphere.
      I’d be looking for processes that recycle ambient carbon and are therefore neutral.

      • mrsircharles Says:

        I think you’re slightly wrong here Peter. The system is carbon neutral as the same amount of CO2 absorbed by the algae is emitted again when used as fuel (could be for the same power plant). It’s a circle, a renewable energy source. The plant just grows much faster when fed with high CO2 gas.

        What you are probably looking for is some kind of geo-engineering which would end up being carbon negative, absorbing excess carbon from the atmosphere.

        Anyway, the future energy supply will definitely not just be built on one or two legs.

  2. rayduray Says:

    Another algae-to-fuel YouTube that might appeal:


    “With growing pressure on the word’s gas supply, University of Nebraska biologist George Oyler is working with researchers in California and New Mexico on a fuel alternative — algae for fuel. Microscopic algae is grown in labs, then cultivated like a farm crop in ponds in New Mexico to turn the oil within aquatic algae into “green crude” — which can be refined just like crude oil…into gas for cars, trucks, and planes. For more information, visit”

  3. Ed Hodder Says:

    and there’s another video and some pics at

    Green Plains has commercialized algea growth using vertical bioreactors which seems like it should reduce the space needed from the “ponds” mentioned in UMich video. Greenman3610 may be interested to know that the CO2 comes from ethanol produced from corn. I know the story about corn efficiency but the idea is that the CO2 sources are flexible (I keep wondering why would couldn’t just pump a portion of the algea crop back down into old wells?). Anyway, Green Plains’ first customer is in make up I believe and they’re talking to neutracutical firms and others to build out from the current 3 acres of production.

    I didn’t get numbers from UMich but GPRE believes they can produce 40-50 tons of algea per year per acre and would like to construct 50 acre facilities. If anyone else has the conversion rate to fuel I’d be curious if that’s inline with the UMich estimate. GPRE’s CEO (and he’s a sensible guy) is claiming that the economics is currently good enough that the algea production will pay the mortage on their ethanol plants. In other words, they’ll be producing ethanol for the CO2.

  4. otter17 Says:

    Between algae grown on non-arable land and other waste biomass, we can provide some of our liquid fuel based on the Earth’s solar budget. Hopefully someone can come up with a process for producing liquid fuel that can scale up.

  5. andrewfez Says:

    Didn’t they used to have a plant that cooked and pressurized old tires and garbage and made oil out of it, that went bankrupt year ago? I bet with the price of oil these days, there is a chance they could get back in the game. I saw that on TV years ago; back when i had a TV.

    • rayduray Says:

      Hi Andrew,

      The process you are describing is called pyrolysis.

      An attempt was made here in Bend, OR to establish a waste tire to usable pyrolytic oil plant at our local landfill. It was fought off successfully by the local environmental community who exposed several toxic downsides to the technology. This is not a benign process by a long shot.

  6. […] weekend’s discussion about algae based fuel lead me to this vid on agricultural biogas production,  from the University of […]

  7. skeptictmac57 Says:

    Here is an interesting TEDx video with Jonathan Trent from NASA’s OMEGA project.They are investigating the growing of micro algae offshore as a way to avoid conflicts with agriculture for land use:

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