Researchers from the University of Utah have developed a way to economically turn algae into a biocrude fuel that can be used to power ships, vehicles, and aircraft. The method that the team has developed promises to be “unusually” rapid at converting the algae into fuel and to be cost-effective to produce fuel in large quantities.
The process the university developed uses a specially-designed jet mixer in the production process. The key to using algae as a biofuel is extracting the oil from the fatty acid molecules that can be used to power diesel engines. Before the new method of extracting the needed oil from algae, the challenge was the amount of energy required to pull the biocrude from the watery plant material.
Old methods of doing that required more energy than could be extracted from the biomass. The new jet mixer that the researchers developed can extract the lipids from the algae with much less energy. The mixer is also fast able to perform the lipid extraction in seconds pushing this form of energy closer to being a cost-effective alternative fuel.
Co-author of the research paper, Leonard Pease, says that the key piece is trying to get to energy parity, but he notes we aren’t there yet. In the new mixing extractor, a jet of solvent is shot at jets of algae creating localized turbulence that causes the lipids to “jump” a short distance into the stream of solvent. When the process is complete, the solvent is removed and can be used as part of the process again.
The process can be used in removing lipids for biofuel from other materials, such as bacteria, fungi, and any other microbial-derived oil. The benefit in using algae is that it can be grown in ponds, raceways, or bioreactors and harvested to produce an abundance of fuel.