University of Michigan researchers are turning up the heat in their quest to produce better algae-based biofuels. A team of scientists recently discovered that heating microalgae in a pressure cooker decreases the amount of time and money needed to turn the slimy substance into biofuels. Once perfected, the process could finally bring low-cost, low-emission, algae-based fuels to the market.
In conventional processes, converting algae to biofuel requires growing high-oil algae species, drying them out and then extracting the oil from the plant. University of Michigan researchers found a way to essentially eliminate two huge limitations in that timely process. By using a pressure cooker, scientists can start with less oily types of microalgae (microscopic species of algae). Plus, placing plants in a cooker means you don’t need to dry them out.
The pressure cooker works by heating microalgae up to about 300 degrees, forming an algae soup. The high temperatures combined with the pressure breaks the plants down, releasing the native oil and causing proteins and carbohydrates to decompose, adding to the fuel yield. Cooking the “soup” for 30 minutes to an hour yields a crude bio-oil, which can then be converted to fuel.
The process is still a work-in-progress and needs some additional perfecting before it can be commercialized. Still, the research is sure to bring algae-based biofuels one step closer to world fuel markets.