Errors When Extracting Oil from Algae

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Erin Murphy, Rylee Treat and Trent Ichiuji, University of California Davis, Davis, CA, United States
Oil is in popular demand, but the worldwide amount of oil is decreasing and prices for it are steadily increasing. Leading scientists have been working to find a solution of attaining oil in an economically and environmentally friendly way. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have determined that “a small mixture of algae and water can be turned into crude oil in less than an hour” (Sheehan, Duhahay, Benemann, Poessler). There are various ways of growing the algae, such as closed loop and open loop methods, as well as processes of extracting oil, such as hydrothermal liquefaction and the hexane-solvent method. Our objective was to grow the algae (C. reinhardtii) and extract oil from it using NaOH and HCl, because we had easy access to those specific chemicals. After two trials of attempted algae growth, we discovered that a bacteria was killing off the algae. This led us to further contemplation on how this dead algae and bacteria are affecting our environment, and the organisms within it. Eutrophication occurs when excess nutrients stimulate rapid growth of algae in an aquatic environment. This can clog waterways and create algal blooms in blue-green algae, as well as neurotoxic red tide phytoplankton. These microscopic algae die upon consumption of the nutrients in water and are degraded by bacteria. The bacteria respires and creates an acidic environment with the spontaneous conversion of carbon dioxide to carbonic acid in water. This process of degradation is exactly what occurred in our 250 mL flask. When the phytoplankton attacked our algae, it created a hypoxic environment, which eliminated any remaining amounts of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nutrients in the water, resulting in a miniature dead zone. These dead zones can occur almost anywhere where there are algae and bacteria, such as the ocean, and make it extremely difficult for any organism to survive. This experiment helped us realize the consequences of our actions, and we saw for ourselves how we are polluting and killing the environment. Releasing excess nutrients into our waterways is creating a destructive chain reaction, but if we monitor our output of pollution, we can minimize the amount of damage we do to algae, organisms, and the environment in general.