Los Alamos National Laboratory


Harvesting Oil

We’re used to the idea of pumping fuel from the ground, but how about growing it in water? It could happen if we tap into a new fuel source, one we generally think of as . . . well, pond scum: algae.

Algae contain a high concentration of fatty, energy-rich molecules called lipids that can be refined into biofuel. The trick is to extract the lipids in industrial-scale amounts and at a reasonable cost. The Laboratory’s Greg Goddard has a technique for doing that, and it just needs a little noise, that is, sound waves.

The technology is adapted from the awardwinning Los Alamos Acoustic Flow Cytometer, which uses an ultrasonic field (a sound wave) to force fluid-borne cells into single file to be counted or analyzed. With Colorado’s Solix Biofuels, Inc., Goddard is developing a harvesting device in which sound waves exert their force on algae to separate it from the water it grows in, lyse (rupture) it, and extract its lipids. And this all happens in a single chamber only a few inches long.

picture of algae experiment

The right technology could make algae a new fuel source.

“For industry, it’s not size that’s important,” says Goddard. “It’s throughput.”

He gets high throughput by simultaneously sending multiple streams of algae-laden water into the chamber, where the sound waves lyse the algal cells and create distinct layers of lipids, water, and leftover cellular proteins. The water is left pure enough for reuse, and the proteins can serve a new purpose as animal feed (especially in fish farming) or organic fertilizer.

Eileen Patterson

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