Scientists Seek Ways to Harvest Fossil Fuel Faster

Suggestions are floated in the current issue of Industrial Engineering & Chemical Research on the best way to farm living diatoms to turn their oil into a new oil field  containing “massive amounts of gasoline.”


As previously fossilized fuel supplies dwindle,  pinhead-sized diatoms – at the bottom of the food chain – have become the focus of the attention of the rapacious creatures at the top of the food chain. As we humans run out of oil, we have begun to cast about desperately for our new oil supplies.

Where better to look than at the tiny creatures who died to make us oil millions of years ago?

Lets not wait another million years for currently living diatoms to leave us new oil supplies. Lets extract their oil while they are still alive!


Fossil fuels are created from the dead bodies of diatoms which, over millenia, have sunk to the floor of oceans and lakes when they died. Over geologic time, these accumulate quite a large mass. Fossil fuels are not made of dead dinosaurs as you might have thought.

These pinhead-sized diatoms make oil to help them float up near the surface so they can convert sunlight for their own survival. For millions of years they have also been at the bottom of the food chain, just providing sustenance for little fish to be eaten by bigger fish and so on. Then, when they die, their tiny dead bodies sink to the bottom of oceans and lakes where they have gone to create the world’s crude oil, undisturbed for most of time until we started digging them up to drive our cars on.

But now that we are running out of the fossilized fuel diatoms made for our convenience, we are thinking, why not harvest that oil now –  before they become fossils!

That is the idea behind a new research paper suggesting the best ways to harvest the oil, or as these researchers call it “milk”, that diatoms secrete. This suggests the benign sounding familiar historic precedent of dairy farming.

Kindly noting that they will not harvest the oil by “grinding them up and extracting the milk”, the researchers propose that diatoms essentially “be allowed to secrete the oil at their own pace, with selective breeding and alterations of the environment maximizing production.”

Here’s what they suggest:

“With more than 200,000 species from which to choose, and all the combinatorics of nutrient and genome manipulation, finding or creating the “best” diatom for sustainable gasoline will be challenging, the authors offer some guidelines for starting species:

  • Choose planktonic diatoms with positive buoyancy or at least neutral buoyancy.
  • Choose diatoms that harbor symbiotic nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria, which should reduce nutrient requirements.
  • Choose diatoms that have high efficiency of photon use, perhaps from those that function at low light levels.
  • Choose diatoms that are thermophilic, especially for solar panels subject to solar heating.
  • Consider those genera that have been demonstrated by paleogenetics to have contributed to fossil organics.
  • For motile or sessile pennate diatoms that adhere to surfaces, buoyancy may be much less important than survival from desiccation, which seems to induce oil production. Therefore, the reaction of these diatoms to drying is a place to start. The reaction of oceanic planktonic species to drying has not been investigated, although one would anticipate that they have no special mechanisms for addressing this (for them) unusual situation.
  • Genetic engineering of diatoms to enhance oil production has been attempted, but it has not yet been successful.”

Interesting idea. Of course, without their oil, the diatoms won’t float. So they will sink out of range of the little fish that ate them for the last million years. (But we humans are emptying the oceans of other fish anyway so of course that won’t matter any more.)

And this would just be small farms, right? Just for the 9 billion of us and our 9 billion combustion engines, right? When we humans are fueling our cars off of these tiny specs at the very bottom of the food chain, this whole new ocean ecosystem will work just fine.

Via GreenCarCongress

Image  via Steve Jurvetson of diatoms and algae in the Great Salt Lake, Utah.


Susan Kraemer

writes at CleanTechnica, CSP-Today, PV-Insider , SmartGridUpdate, and GreenProphet. She has also been published at Ecoseed, NRDC OnEarth, MatterNetwork, Celsius, EnergyNow, and Scientific American. As a former serial entrepreneur in product design, Susan brings an innovator's perspective on inventing a carbon-constrained civilization: If necessity is the mother of invention, solving climate change is the mother of all necessities! As a lover of history and sci-fi, she enjoys chronicling the strange future we are creating in these interesting times.    Follow Susan on Twitter @dotcommodity.