'Milking' microscopic algae could yield massive amounts of oil

Jun 19, 2009
Microscopic diatoms like the one shown above could yield massive amounts of oil, scientists say. Credit: The American Chemical Society

Scientists in Canada and India are proposing a surprising new solution to the global energy crisis —“milking” oil from the tiny, single-cell algae known as diatoms, renowned for their intricate, beautifully sculpted shells that resemble fine lacework. Their report appears online in the current issue of the ACS’ bi-monthly journal Industrial Engineering & Chemical Research.

Richard Gordon, T. V. Ramachandra, Durga Madhab Mahapatra, and Karthick Band note that some geologists believe that much of the world’s crude oil originated in diatoms, which produce an oily substance in their bodies. Barely one-third of a strand of hair in diameter, diatoms flourish in enormous numbers in oceans and other water sources. They die, drift to the seafloor, and deposit their shells and oil into the sediments. Estimates suggest that live diatoms could make 10−200 times as much oil per acre of cultivated area compared to oil seeds, Gordon says.

“We propose ways of harvesting oil from diatoms, using biochemical engineering and also a new solar panel approach that utilizes genetically modifiable aspects of biology, offering the prospect of “milking” diatoms for sustainable energy by altering them to actively secrete oil products,” the scientists say. “Secretion by and milking of diatoms may provide a way around the puzzle of how to make that both grow quickly and have a very high content.”

More information: Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, Journal Article: “Milking Diatoms for Sustainable Energy: Biochemical Engineering Versus Gasoline-Secreting Diatom Solar Panels”

Source: American Chemical Society (news : web)

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User comments : 10

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deatopmg
3.1 / 5 (7) Jun 19, 2009
First work on this was done at MIT in the 50's. SERI then NREL in the US were tasked to work on growing vegie oil in aquatic organisms starting in the '70's w/ funding ending in '96. Many species were identified as possible producers of vegetable oil but no one has succeeded in doing this commercially yet. Things like the diatoms pictured above are physically too small to be isolated or even concentrated economically for "milking". Gordon et al should read the literature - it's all on line.

There is, however, a patented aquatic plant, Ninsei, that continuously produces and exudes (no milking needed) petroleum in commercially attractive quantities while overcoming all of the other drawbacks of growing aquatic organisms for oil.
NeilFarbstein
2.6 / 5 (5) Jun 19, 2009
Land based schemes for growing algae and making oil from those organisms will put huge strain on the water economy. They will use too much water that will be diverted from crop growing and for consumption by people and industries. It's not going to work. Its a dead way to go.
Sean_W
3.7 / 5 (6) Jun 19, 2009
Consider using waste water to nourish and provide the habitat for the algae. This also helps treat the water. There are also closed systems which have little water loss. I don't know how this "milking" works exactly but until it is perfected, the conventional means of concentrating the algae by drying it is being advanced by using surfaces with pores that are just smaller than the algae and channels to wick water away faster. Harvesting the whole algae means you have the oil (which, if used for bio-diesel has glycerol as a byproduct which can now be fermented into ethanol) and protein for animal feed and nitrogenous compounds for fertilizers. Multiple products could make the water usage worth it and not all wasteland is so far from human and industrial source waste water or renewable sources that a profitable enterprise could not afford to get it. Proximity to industrial sources of CO2 could boost productivity by increasing the carbon concentration.

I suspect that most algae harvests (single or multi-celled) will be grown and harvested at sea but between water treatment and superior locations, land based operations are not out of the question.
E_L_Earnhardt
3 / 5 (3) Jun 19, 2009
Great! The H2O could be returned. No water loss!
nkalanaga
4.5 / 5 (2) Jun 19, 2009
If the diatoms "actively secrete" the oil, harvesting it would be easy. It would float to the top! No need to process the diatoms themselves, just skim off the oil.
TJ_alberta
5 / 5 (3) Jun 19, 2009
actually the best place for growing the algae is in a hot desert where sunshine and available land are not limiting factors - see for example the algae farm in the Arava rift valley just north of Eilat. Algae has been grown commercially there for decades. Googling the subject reveals the possibility of producing a wide range of chemicals under similar conditions from algae/diatoms/bacteria.
jonnyboy
1 / 5 (3) Jun 22, 2009
enslave the algae now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Just joking, this is actually pretty cool research.
possum
not rated yet Jun 22, 2009
I agree with Sean W. about water usage. Read article on SD (may have been here too) which compared how many miles an acre you get from ethanol with the variables being 1}The tried and true (planting/harvest,distilling/refining,distribution and out the tailpipe -VS- 2} Just using the ethanol as a feedstock to produce electricity. Electricity won by a longshot. Now imagine your "algae field" is surrounded by diesel generators and you pipe the exhaust back into your algae for CO2 input. The best yielding ethanol is Miscanthus grass at 1500gals/acre. If the yields that are being talked about for algae, we might be on to something.
larryhagedon
not rated yet Jun 22, 2009
No water shortage in the midwest, but the water to grow algae will come from waste water anyway. Algae will be used to clean up sewage, storm sewer runoff, animal manures, rural sceptic tanks, municiple solid waste, and in many cases runoff from farm barnyards and cropland. All these sources will add their water to the process.

Water coming from an algae pond is much cleaner than it was going in. It can be reused for algae production until it is too clean to provide any more nutrients, then the excess clean water will be sent on down the river. Doing this on the scale that is coming will clean up our rivers and clean up those notorious dead zones at the river mouths.
defunctdiety
not rated yet Jun 22, 2009
So much water could be reclaimed for whatever use if people would stop trying to grow Kentucky blue grass in arid climes. The institution of lawns is one of the worst environmental and conservation offenders there is.