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Oil from algae? New Orleans startup plans to make crude oil

It’s no secret that the world is addicted to oil. Despite growth in green tech like wind and solar, demand for black gold isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, this time next year, global use of oil will increase by a million more barrels per day.

The fossil fuels we use to power our planes, trains and automobiles was formed millions of years ago — but what if we could make and create our own oil instead? And make it greener?

That’s the idea behind Reactwell, a startup in New Orleans that’s the work of 33-year-old Brandon Iglesias. In his lab, he’s developing a technique to create crude oil from materials like algae or woodchips that can be easily grown.

“This is a renewable way to produce a synthetic crude oil,” Iglesias said. “That’s the focus of Reactwell, it’s to recycle existing carbon dioxide that’s in the atmosphere into useful oil and chemicals.

Scientists have been creating oil in labs for years, using intense heat and pressure to simulate what happens naturally. The problem is that it’s inefficient and dangerous. But Brandon’s idea is to take the reaction and put it underground, harnessing the heat and pressure found below the earth’s surface to make the process economically viable and safe.

Pretty soon he’ll move from the lab to a larger test facility, under construction south of New Orleans. He hopes to start selling oil using his process sometime in the next five years.

“My hope for Reactwell would be to successfully commercialize the technology and to see it be used, that would make me happy,” he said.

Credit: Bradley Blackburn, Suzette Laboy and Walter Collins

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