Algae-to-biocrude oil

Award Year 

In recent years, there has been a shift in the U.S. to use renewable energy as a way to reduce dependency on fossil fuels from other countries. Algae is considered an attractive source of renewable energy, but it has been challenging to bring to the marketplace because producers typically must first remove water from the algae, then extract oil from the dried algae. This is energy-intensive and costly, and it leaves behind residual material that is difficult to use. (more)

The algae-to-biocrude oil process developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) not only converts a slurry of wet algae into biocrude oil in less than an hour, it also takes advantage of the wastewater and residual organics left behind. With additional conventional refining, the crude algae oil is converted into aviation fuel, gasoline, or diesel fuel. The wastewater is processed further, yielding burnable gas for heat or energy use, and plant nutrients such as potassium and nitrogen which, along with the cleansed water, can be recycled to grow more algae. The process is similar to the way fossil fuels were formed, except that it does in less than an hour what would take nature millions of years to accomplish. The process reduces the cost of algae-based biocrude oil production by 86 percent compared to existing processes.

PNNL licensed the original technology to Genifuel Corporation and further developed the technology in response to the needs of the licensee. The two partners spent more than a year testing the technology on wet algae, and Genifuel licensed the process to gasify wet algae in 2009. The technology evolved from previously licensed catalytic hydrothermal gasification to include hydrothermal liquefaction, which was licensed to Genifuel in 2013. At each step of the way, licensing was amended and expanded to reflect the technology advancements, joint patents, and additional fields of use.

In 2014, Genifuel built a pilot plant for its first customer, Reliance Industries, Ltd. Constructed in Colorado, the plant has attracted significant attention from a variety of industries, including food processing and wastewater treatment companies. The pilot plant provides Genifuel with a potential client base of industries interested in converting not just algae, but various other wet waste materials into biofuels. As a result, Genifuel is actively pursuing additional customers interested in converting various bio-based materials.

The successful transfer of the algae-to-biocrude oil process has greatly benefited both PNNL and its partner, Genifuel. PNNL benefitted from Genifuel?s business sense, determination, and drive to find a technology to convert wet algae and bring that innovation to market. Genifuel benefitted from PNNL?s expertise in hydrothermal chemistry, as well as PNNL staff and facilities to rapidly test different species of algae and other feedstocks.