Algae species explored for both biofuel source and pollution control

March 14, 2012 By Teresa Messmore
Kathryn Coyne, assistant professor of marine biosciences, is studying algae as a source of biofuel and pollution control. Credit: Lisa Tossey

(PhysOrg.com) -- The tiny, plant-like Heterosigma akashiwo is too small to see with the naked eye, but the microscopic algae may pack a big environmental punch. University of Delaware researchers are studying whether the species can neutralize harmful smokestack emissions – and also serve as a source of eco-friendly biofuel.

The project is an outgrowth of biochemist Kathryn Coyne’s study into the ecology of H. akashiwo, which thrives in Delaware and worldwide. Coyne and her postdoctoral fellow, Jennifer Stewart, found that the contain a special enzyme with the unusual ability to detoxify , one of multiple contaminants released through industrial chimneys as .

Based on the discovery of that enzyme, Coyne and Stewart decided to explore the possibility of recruiting the algae for pollution control. They knew that other scientists were trying to use different types of algae to reduce emissions of another flue gas component, carbon dioxide, since algae need carbon dioxide to grow. 

“The problem with those attempts was that the nitric oxide also present in flue gas usually killed the algae,” said Coyne, assistant professor of marine biosciences. “It’s very harmful.”

That’s where H. akashiwo’s special enzyme may come in handy. The protein may enable the algae to convert harmful nitric oxide into innocuous nitrate, while the algae are also metabolizing carbon dioxide.

In addition to having pollution-fighting potential, H. akashiwo is a proven source of biofuel. Rising petroleum prices and finite quantities of fossil fuels are prompting demand for renewable energy sources, and algae-derived biofuel is already powering some trains, jets and other machines. 

Adding nitrogen is an important but costly step in the process of making biofuel. H. akashiwo’s ability to use nitric oxide from flue gas essentially eliminates that step.

Coyne’s project is still in the early stages, having only recently received funding from Delaware Sea Grant. Before investigating commercial applications, Coyne will need to examine the long-term effects of flue gas on the algae’s physiology. She will also evaluate how well H. akashiwo uses nitric oxide as a nitrogen source and how light intensities affect its production of the lipids and fatty acids used to make biofuel. 

Yet the potential upsides could be great. Existing methods of cleaning factory gas before it is released into the air are labor-intensive and costly, so algae pose a natural and potentially cheaper alternative. They also contain a high proportion of the fats needed to make biofuel.

“Algal biofuels are great values,” Coyne said. “Compared to crops like corn and soybeans, the same mass of algae can produce greater quantities of biofuel.”  

Explore further: Algae-Based Biofuel From Fish

Related Stories

Algae-Based Biofuel From Fish

September 1, 2009

Right now, when biofuel is produced using algae, cultures are grown and then processed into fuel. But the process is expensive and difficult. Now a company in Texas, LiveFuels, Inc., hopes that it will be able to change all ...

EADS to unveil algae-powered aircraft

June 4, 2010

European aerospace giant EADS is poised to unveil a "hybrid" aircraft which runs on algae fuel, a world first, its technical director said on Friday.

Just because it's green doesn't make it mean

April 22, 2011

Unlike the spinach smoothie my boot camp instructor tries to get me to drink, just because something is green doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing. Case in point - Algae.

Pilot plant cleans waste water and creates fuel

September 16, 2011

A new industrial plant that uses algae to clean waste water has opened in Gloucestershire, run by scientists from the University’s Department of Biology and Biochemistry, and environmental innovation company Aragreen.

Recommended for you

Plastic in 99 percent of seabirds by 2050

August 31, 2015

Researchers from CSIRO and Imperial College London have assessed how widespread the threat of plastic is for the world's seabirds, including albatrosses, shearwaters and penguins, and found the majority of seabird species ...

Researchers unveil DNA-guided 3-D printing of human tissue

August 31, 2015

A UCSF-led team has developed a technique to build tiny models of human tissues, called organoids, more precisely than ever before using a process that turns human cells into a biological equivalent of LEGO bricks. These ...

Study shows female frogs susceptible to 'decoy effect'

August 28, 2015

(Phys.org)—A pair of researchers has found that female túngaras, frogs that live in parts of Mexico and Central and South America, appear to be susceptible to the "decoy effect." In their paper published in the journal ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.