The Bakken’s biggest threat could be algae of all things.
Scientists and engineers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory announced Tuesday a continuous chemical process that turns harvested algae into crude oil in less than 60 minutes.
The catch? While the process takes minutes rather than a million years to form crude oil, the process isn’t exactly cost-efficient yet.
“Cost is the big roadblock for algae-based fuel,” said Douglas Elliott, the laboratory fellow who led the PNNL team’s research, in a release. “We believe that the process we’ve created will help make algae biofuels much more economical.”
What cut the cost to a more economical level was being able to use wet algae in the chemical process, as opposed to using energy and money to dry it out. The PNNL’s new process uses a “slurry” of algae that uses up to 90 percent water.
This isn’t the first time algae has been considered a viable biofuel and the PNNL is far from the first lab to experiment with it — instead it has just found the most success with continuous processing of the slurry.
With a little more refining to the algae-based oil, it can also be converted to aviation fuel, gasoline or diesel fuel. Even the wastewater is processed further to create burnable gas and substances such as nitrogen and potassium, which the PNNL says can be recycled to grow more algae.
“Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process; that cuts the cost a great deal,” said Elliott. “Then there are bonuses, like being able to extract usable gas from the water and then recycle the remaining water and nutrients to help grow more algae, which further reduces costs.”
The PNNL’s recent work is part of the Department of Energy’s National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts and was funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds by the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Don’t expect algae to replace traditional crude extraction any time soon though.
Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have improved the cost and efficiency of drilling and multi-well pads, which could begin holding up to 30 wells on one spot, have even further reduced the cost of the process.
That doesn’t mean biofuels won’t come to fruition.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp laid out her case for keeping yearly biofuel production targets in place that were set forward in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
She said North Dakota’s corn-based ethanol industry can also stand to benefit and would suffer if the administration’s proposal to limit biofuels production go through.
“At a time when we are rapidly increasing our production of North American energy resources, now is not the time to limit our ability to produce a home-grown renewable fuel like ethanol,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “In North Dakota, we see firsthand how biofuels help support our economy, create well-paying jobs, support rural communities and provide cleaner energy.”
Genifuel Corp., which has worked with the PNNL team since 2008, believes its a matter of just getting biofuels economical, and the PNNL’s recent success is good start.
“It’s a formidable challenge to make a biofuel that is cost-competitive with established petroleum-based fuels,” said Genifuel President James Oyler. “This is a huge step in the right direction.”