Researchers Flash-Cook Algae Into Biocrude Oil in a Minute Flat

New tech breakthrough could be a boon for biofuels.


Though it took hundreds of thousands of years for fossil fuels to form naturally, chemical engineers at the University of Michigan did it in a minute.

By “pressure cooking” green microalgae in 1,100-degree-Fahrenheit sand for around 60 seconds, the researchers converted more than half of the slimy algae into biocrude oil, which can be further refined into various forms of biofuel.

It’s an exponential improvement over Mother Nature, and a breakthrough for the lab. Two years ago, the team sped the process up to under a half hour, converting around 50 percent of the microalgae into biocrude.

“We’re trying to mimic the process in nature that forms crude oil with marine organisms,” said Phil Savage, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan who conducted the study along with doctoral student Julia Faeth.

Instead of waiting for dead organisms to decompose under layers of sediment over the course of millions of years, Savage and Faeth filled a steel pipe with wet, green microalgae of the genus Nannochloropsis, and pushed it into the hot sand. A minute’s exposure heated the algae to 550 degrees all the way through, and 65 percent of it became biocrude.

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