16-year-old invents prizewinning clean algae-biofuel conversion process

Alan sez, "Evie Sobczak, who is presently 16, appears to have invented a completely chemical-free process for turning algae into a biofuel. Along the way her process appears to be about 20% more efficient than current chemical-heavy (and thus potentially polluting) processes. Her project just took first place and best in category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair."

Teen's biofuel invention turns algae into fuel (Thanks, Alan!)


    1.  The article is sadly (but not surprisingly) almost completely lacking in details on the nature of her invention (maybe the video, which I can’t watch at work, is better). However, based purely on the title of her entry, which includes the words ‘osmotic sonication’, we can speculate on what ‘chemical free’ means in this context. One of the difficulties involved in having algae create fuel is that you have to extract it. Typically, this means breaking down the algal cells and then separating the useful hydrocarbons from the soup. Both steps might involve chemicals, either for cell lysis or for countercurrent extraction. It sounds like what she has done is use sonication to break up the cells, and osmotic filtration to separate the hydrocarbons from the resulting soup. Likely both chemically clean and energy efficient.
      I’m a huge pessimist on the potential for algae-to-fuel technology generally, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t good work.

      1. It states she’s using osmotic sonication, so likely what is happening is the algae are being put under pressure with the helium, which osmoses through the cell wall, and the mixture is then rapidly decompressed, producing a mechanical lysis of the cellulose cell wall, liberating the oils.

        Similar is done with ingredients for cocktails, and nitrous oxide, in cream chargers (http://blog.khymos.org/2010/08/21/wonders-of-extraction-pressure/)

        Also this : http://algaetooil.weebly.com/ seems to be her entire project written up.

        1. Thanks for the link. That’s a solid description of her work. It makes me very sad, however, to read the ‘Methods’ section, and see that a 16 year old feels the need to preface every description of mechanical construction work with ‘Under the direct supervision of my adult supervisor’ or similar. Because drilling 1.75cm holes in acrylic plastic is so dangerous. Gordon Moore made homemade dynamite when he was 11 years old…

          1. I think it could be good; it would encourage more students to get adult supervisors for their science projects.

          1. They are not undergoing chemical reaction, nor are they being consumed in a chemical reaction. They are being utilized here for their quantum mechanical properties.

    2. I wonder how a pop-science journalist determines when to use technical language  – where ‘chemical-free process’ would be complete nonsense – and when to use colloquial language to avoid confusing his audience.

      Seems close to a damned if you do damned if you don’t scenario most of the time.

      1. We are walking sacks of chemicals. We need to overcome the irrational fear of chemicals we have in modern society.

      1. Pedantry has its place.  “Pedantic” is an adjective. 
        However, since your first sentence really was not the place for the word “pedantic”, your comment as a whole was technically correct. Well done.

        All attempts to discuss science without being pedantic are in fact discussions of something else, something that looks similar from a distance but is much less useful.

  1. I want to make jokes about what I was doing at 16, and about Evie’s parents helping her and stuff, but this is just too awesome. Congrats Evie!!!

  2. The article doesn’t tell much, but in the vid, it shows her holding a cannister labelled Helium. 2 things, definitely a chemical, and as we’ve heard before on boingboing, Helium prices are set to skyrocket in the future, as reserves are “low”.

    However at 16, I was not tackling ways to reduce fossil fuel reliance. My hat is off to her!  Congrats on the win Evie.

  3. Congrats indeed.

    In the video, there’s mention of helium. That’s a somewhat limited resource. (In addition to being “a chemical”, but everything’s a chemical so I mostly ignore that claim.)

    I want to know more about total energy costs of the process, including all inputs from growing the algae to electricity. It may be useful even if it runs at a net loss, in terms of converting energy from other sources into a storable/portable form compatible with our legacy technology. Better, of course, if it’s a net gain.

    Corn ethanol is mostly a boondoggle — it’s in the first of those categories if it’s justified at all. We need something better. Cellulose would be wonderful since it could run on agricultural waste, but is still a tough problem. Algae isn’t a bad second hope.

    (Meanwhile, my solar panels went live this week. Peak output so far is 1.8kW, but we’ve had unsettled weather; I’m hoping to set a new benchmark today.)

    1.  congrats on the solar.  jealous. we have a giant tree south of our roof.  you get on some nice incentives to make them pay out sooner?

  4. I say good for her – And, just for the sake of reality, I’d recommend that she and her parents contact a really good patent lawyer – And that they against going for any late-night drives or walks until her stuff pays off, and they can afford a good security detail.

  5. From http://algaetooil.weebly.com

    “In an effort to maintain energetic feasibility and environmental sustainability, this researcher engineered the cellulose-blaster, a high pressured ultrasonic tank that extracted the lipids in one step using a combination of osmotic shock, homogenization and sonication for cell disruption. The algae cells were lysed in an osmotic bath then forced through a pressurized orifice while being bombarded with ultrasonic waves. This three-in-one method sheared the cell wall and released the lipids, avoiding high-energy costs. To maintain economic viability, the lipid oil was recycled through the cellulose blaster where it was transesterified into a fuel using Ba(OH)₂ and CH₄O under ultrasonic, homogenization conditions. Unlike traditional transesterification processes with large energy and chemical requirements, the cellulose-blaster was able to cut the reaction time and static time in half keeping energy consumption at a minimum. Further research plans include creating an in situ supercritical process wherein the cellulose-blaster is built to withstand high pressure, high temperature, and high frequency ultrasound for a one-step extraction and transesterification process without the use of a base catalyst. ”

    Tl;dr: “nitrous cream charger” lysis plus rapid decompression lysis plus ultrasonic lysis plus catalysed transesterification, with plans to scale up to remove the catalyst.

          1. The barium hydroxide and methanol are catalysts; they help produce a chemical reaction but are not consumed in the process. That’s still considered to be “Chemical-free”, because it does not consume any chemicals (no net chemical use).

            She also has a process outlined that uses no chemomechanical catalysts, solely the pressure and ultrasonics, which will require significantly more engineering of her “cellulose blaster” to withstand higher temperatures and pressures.

          2. Actually, you are wrong about the methanol. In the video, she calls the fuel that she produces biodiesel. Biodiesel consumes methanol. That is indisputable. I am an expert on this topic.

          3. So, when you say you are an expert in biodiesel, and that her process consumes methanol in the transesterification stage, what you’re saying is that you have followed her methods and reproduced her experiments and in doing so, recovered the methanol that was introduced in the transesterification process, noticed that you had less methanol output than input in this process, measured all inputs and outputs, and then performed controlled experiments in order to put forth and support the hypothesis that the missing methanol is consumed by the biodiesel transesterification process, and there are no other supportable explanations, right?

            I mean, I don’t doubt that you have some processes where the biodiesel you’re making is consuming methanol at some point. We’re did you publish your methods demonstrating your process wherein Methanol is being demonstrably consumed in the transesterification of your biodiesel?

          4. No. I am saying that transesterification definitively involves replacing one alcohol (glycerol) with another (the methanol in this case), and that no matter how much excess methanol you use and recover, you cannot recover the stoichiometric amount. It is used up like butter in a cake. Scientifically speaking, there are no ways to transesterify vegetable oil that do not involve using up alcohol. It’s not possible. That’s how you get from triglyceride to methyl esters. And this data that I’m presenting has been published many, many times over by various chemists over the years. It’s well known in the biodiesel industry.

    1. the cellulose-blaster, a high pressured ultrasonic tank that extracted the lipids in one step using a combination of osmotic shock, homogenization and sonication for cell disruption.

      This man comes to mind.

  6.  People are talking about input costs and net energy yield, but what we are forgetting is that algae eat human poop. Sewage treatment already uses a lot of energy, so even if you don’t get a lot of fuel out of the process, you are still getting something where you used to get nothing.

    1.  The input costs can no doubt be made very small, but remember that one of the chief competitors for this tech is solar, with input costs of zero (if we use the same definition of ‘inputs’). That’s why I’m pessimistic about algae as a competitor for solar; the best efficiency you can get out of chlorophyll photosynthesis is about 10%, so even if you can somehow get around the messy engineering problems that are involved with extracting the hydrocarbons from the soup, and then recycling it, you still start way behind modern photovoltaics in terms of efficiency.

      1. I wasn’t saying that input costs could be reduced. I was saying that input costs might not matter at all.

        For the most part we get no energy back from sewage treatment. A diesel algae farm as a step in sewage treatment would get us something where we now get nothing. I am saying that we could have trucks that run on human feces

        1. It would probably be better to use the sewage to grow aquatic plants or some biomass like giant grasses, because the alga requires a sterile growth media. 

  7. I noticed (and I see other commenters did too) that she uses helium in the process. I hope she has a substitute element, because we are running out of helium, it is becoming very expensive to buy (compared to 10 years ago), and it is very energy intensive to produce.

    So — how is this process “clean” and “efficient” ? It seems shortsighted to use an element that we are quickly running out of and tout it as if it is some breakthrough.

      1. She didn’t call it “chemical free”, the person who sent this article into BB did. The article itself only says “The process leaves out harmful chemicals, like chloroform and hexane, which are used in making biodiesel and other types of fuel.”

        1. In the video she says “If you use my process, you don’t use any chemicals”. She also calls her fuel “biodiesel”. Those two statements are mutually exclusive. I am in favor of the work she is doing, and think it could be promising, mostly in terms of oil extraction, but there’s a lot of false advertising going on here.

  8. She worked a couple perfecting her cultivation of spyrogyra, then the lysis and extraction process. 

    These are nontrivial problems in dealing with biomass.  Plant cells have tough cell walls and even after the cells are lysed the chlorophyll can just make a dark green glob as viscous as taffy. 

    I actually did some of this stuff at one point, and I lysed the cells under 8,000 psi IIRC

  9. I can’t speak to the validity of anything she says, but coming on the heels of Miss Utah’s video from earlier in the week, she gets a complete pass.

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