Botryococcus braunii is an algae, the kind of growth that can be found on the surface of stagnant water bodies. The humble pond scum may be due for a fair share of the headlines soon. Every molecule of the algae is shaped like an ornate magic wand; only, the wand comprises enough molecules of carbon to give crude oil a complex. That’s every modern-day alchemists dream come true: a plant that can be processed for petrol, diesel, aviation turbine fuel, and other such.
Scientists have known for some time that B. braunii (as the algae is referred to in scientific circles) is a repository of hydrocarbons. Getting it to give them up, which would involve refining or extraction, has crossed the minds of several, but issues related to the availability of the algae and the cost-effectiveness of the process have scotched their plans. “The difficult part is to create the right conditions for it to grow and to make it a cost-effective fuel,” said Gokare Aswathanarayana Ravishankar, a researcher at Mysore’s Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI). Ravishankar is one of the scientists who claim to have achieved a breakthrough that could see ponds of B. braunii being cultivated as a source of fuel.
A micro-algae is no gusher. And B. braunii doesn’t grow in abundance, requiring a certain combination of temperature, pressure, and sunlight. CFTRI scientists claim to have collected some natural samples from the Bear Shola Falls, a waterfall in Kodaikanal, and then created a hot-bed or incubator for the plant to grow and multiply. The scientists claim that the process, for which they have applied for a patent, produced 30 kg of algae which, when processed, yielded a kg of fuel. “Unless there is a way to create a substantial amount of the algae, there will be little commercial interest in extracting hydrocarbons from it,” said Ravishankar. He claims several biotech and fuel firms have contacted the group after it successfully cultivated the algae.
Ravishankar wouldn’t comment on the cost of the extraction either, but said it compared favourably with the process of extracting fuel from the Jatropha plant. Several Indian companies, including Reliance are cultivating Jatropha, and hope to extract bio-diesel from it. An acre of Jatropha, by some estimates, gives a little over 700 litres of fuel.
Most algae, although some scientists believe they belong in the animal kingdom, are reservoirs of hydrocarbons. But many have tough cell walls that makes extraction of hydrocarbons difficult. B. braunii is different; most of its usable hydrocarbon content lies outside the cell walls, in long chains. These chains are broken through a process called hydrocracking to produce a distillate that is 67% petrol, 15% ATF, 15% diesel and 3% residual oil. To an oil-hungry world, it’s pure gold, though.