As a lover of bluegrass music, I hear “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” more often than most. The traditional song made famous as the TV theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the 1960s has seeped into the collective consciousness of Americans of a certain age, thanks in part to years of reruns after the show ended in the early ’70s. Each time I hear it, I savor the “…black gold, Texas tea” lyrics that evoke a smile.
Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory may have found a way to change that visual from black gold to green for today’s youth by creating useful crude oil from algae slurry in minutes.
“Solid biomass is not something you can put into a car or into an engine. We need to change it chemically and physically,” says Doug Elliott, a laboratory fellow at PNNL in Richland, Wash., in a video about the continuous flow reactor. (See the video at http://bit.ly/1cPl1nN)
The PNNL team subjects algae to temperatures of 662°F (350°C) and pressures around 3,000 psi to effect the change, combining processes known as hydrothermal liquefaction and catalytic hydrothermal gasification, according to Elliott. The process produces crude oil, which can be converted to aviation fuel, gasoline or diesel fuel; clean water; fuel gas; and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Although other algae-based fuels have already been developed on a research scale, Elliott’s process is different in that it works with wet algae — the algae slurry used is 80 to 90 percent water. Most current algae biofuel processes require the algae to be dried.