'Survival of the fattest': Promising developments for oil production from algae

Nov 01, 2013

Algae are interesting candidates for the large-scale production of biodiesel. Researchers at TU Delft have developed a clever way of finding the fattest and therefore the most suitable examples among all the many species of algae. They will publish their discovery this week in the scientific journal Energy & Environmental Science.

'The ultimate goal of our research is to make oil-producing as fat as possible, then press the oil out of them and finally produce suitable for cars from this oil,' explains PhD student Peter Mooij of TU Delft.

Large-scale production

A major threat to the stable cultivation of oil-producing algae is infection by other, thinner algae. One option is to use a sealed cultivation system and keep unwanted algae out of the system by means of sterilisation. Although this is theoretically possible, it would be practically infeasible and extremely expensive to do this on a large scale.

'Our method is more suitable for large-scale algae production. We try to select for a particular characteristic and not for a particular species of algae. We are unconcerned whether species A or B is used in our system, as long as they have the characteristic 'fat'. So all algae are welcome in our system,' says Mooij.

Feeding in the dark

Algae produce oil to store carbon and energy. Energy and carbon are useful to them during the long sunless periods or if it is cold. However, algae also need energy and carbon for their cell division and to extract nutrients such as phosphate and nitrogen from the water.'

Mooij took this fact as his starting point. 'The principle works as follows: we go to the nearest pond and fill a test tube with algae. Back in the lab, we put the tube in a reactor. Then we provide the algae with light and CO2 during the day. This is enough for them to produce oil, however they are unable to divide. They need nutrients for cell division and we only give them these in the dark. To absorb the nutrients, they use energy and carbon. This means that only the fattest algae can divide, as they have stored energy and carbon during the day. By removing some of the algae every day, the culture will eventually exist of only the fattest algae; survival of the fattest!'

From zoo to monoculture

Using a test reactor, Mooij and his colleagues have now demonstrated for the first time that this principle really works. They will publish their discovery this week in the scientific journal Energy and Environmental Science.

Unfortunately, there is one important caveat, explains Mooij. 'The survival of the fattest principle turns out to work beautifully: at the beginning there is a whole zoo of algae and, over time, the system does indeed almost become a monoculture. However, the fat alga is not producing oil yet. Algae do not produce only oil for and carbon storage, but starch too. Out test environment is selective where it concerns storage in general, but not yet for the specific storage of or starch. We will need to make the culture environment even more specific to achieve this. That's what we are working hard at now.'

Explore further: Biofuel from human urine

More information: Mooij, P. et al. Survival of the fattest, Energy & Environmental Science. DOI: 10.1039/c3ee42912a

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Biofuel from human urine

Sep 30, 2013

Micro-algae can grow on undiluted human urine. This offers opportunities for new water purification methods and perhaps even for converting urine into usable chemical substances and biofuels.

Algae biodiesel production has to be three times cheaper

Oct 01, 2010

The cost of producing biodiesel from algae is now three and a half times more than producing it from oil, and twice as much as producing fuel from rapeseed. Investments in biotechnology would however make it feasible for ...

Aussie algae fuel green oil hope

Jul 24, 2013

Newly trialled native algae species provide real hope for the development of commercially viable fuels from algae, a University of Queensland scientist has found.

Recommended for you

Obama launches measures to support solar energy in US

6 hours ago

The White House Thursday announced a series of measures aimed at increasing solar energy production in the United States, particularly by encouraging the installation of solar panels in public spaces.

Tailored approach key to cookstove uptake

7 hours ago

Worldwide, programs aiming to give safe, efficient cooking stoves to people in developing countries haven't had complete success—and local research has looked into why.

Wireless power transfer achieved at five-meter distance

7 hours ago

The way electronic devices receive their power has changed tremendously over the past few decades, from wired to non-wired. Users today enjoy all kinds of wireless electronic gadgets including cell phones, ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Researchers discover target for treating dengue fever

Two recent papers by a University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher and colleagues may help scientists develop treatments or vaccines for Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and other ...