It's hard to avoid the topic of oil in a discussion today. It has an impact on everything from the daily commute to international affairs. The main problem with oil is that we seem to not have enough of it. Without oil to make gasoline, our society screeches to a halt. Scientists might have a new solution to this problem, though, that doesn't involve drilling new holes.
First, though, I want to take a minute and familiarize you with how crude oil forms. Oil is, basically, the compressed remains of ancient, microscopic plants, algae, and bacteria. When these died in a lake or swamp, they would sink to the bottom and create a thick organic mat in the mud. This material didn't just rot away, however. The thick, choking mud prevented most decomposers from properly disposing of it. Thus, as the layers built up, they became more and more compressed. This pressure and heat, along with anaerobic bacteria, converted the organic matter into oil.
A lot of the crude oil that we drill is the compressed remains of a specific type of algae, known as diatoms. Diatoms, like the ones on the right, are microscopic critters with elaborate shells. There are millions of them in most bodies of water, particularly oceans. They also produce an oily substance while they are alive, which is believed to be a large component of the crude oil we use today. It is that idea that has led Richard Gordan and others to propose "milking" diatoms for oil. They estimate that these little creatures could produce 10 to 200 times as much oil as an oil seed of the same acreage. This would make oil a renewable resource, rather than the very finite one it currently is. It will be interesting to see where this research goes. Hopefully, the outcome is a good one.
Credit: Science Daily