Posts Tagged ‘algae’

Modern man has been awful rough on the oceans. With climate change acidifying the seas, and through overfishing, pollution, dead zones and resource extraction, humans have done an amazing amount of damage to the world’s aquatic ecosystems. Brendan Smith encountered many of these challenges as a commercial fisherman. After realizing that most current fishing practices were unsustainable, he decided to settle in Long Island Sound and raise oysters. As of last year, he integrated kelp into his practices, creating a 3D farm that could take advantage of the entire water column. Once he added the green-blue algae, he found that the seaweed and shellfish had great economic and environmental benefits.

Now the subject of a Kickstarter campaign, Smith is looking to expand his 3D farm and educate others as to the applications of kelp and shellfish. Known as the “rainforest of the sea”, kelp is able to capture an incredible amount of carbon at almost five times that of land based plants. His 2o acre farm alone can sequester up to 134 tons a year. Seaweed and oysters can also filter out nitrogen which is the main cause of dead zones created by agricultural runoff. His Thimble Island Oyster Co. farm sucks up 164kg of nitrogen annually, purifying the water and converting the nutrients into a healthy source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Kelp also possesses the added bonus of being a terrific feedstock for biofuel. According to the US Department of Energy, a kelp farm the size of Maine could potentially produce enough algae to replace petroleum for the entire country. Farming kelp has the ability to jump-start what Smith describes as a “Blue-Green Economy” that could not only help to repair damaged ecosystems, but create valuable jobs and revamp a crumbling infrastructure. Instead of drilling and contaminating the water supply, why not take advantage of natural processes that allow life to flourish?

CFLs and LEDs not quite green enough for you? Solar panels too rigid and unforgiving? How about illuminating your living space with living creatures? Algae has long been used to produce biofuel and clean water, and now it is finding a brand new application as a light and power source. Far from your average pond scum, these tiny organisms are being harnessed for their ability to bioluminesce and sequester carbon.

Gyula Bodonyi has created an algae-powered light bulb that looks like the verdant version of a standard Christmas fixture. The tear-shaped bulb works by harnessing the natural biology of algae to power and LED bulb with the aid of a tiny air pump and hydrophobic container. Carbon dioxide and water is taken in near the E27 screw-top, and as the air passes through the bulb, it helps to nourish Chlorella pyrenoidosa microalgae. The oxygen the algae generates in turn operates the LED. When not turned on, the bulb appears green due to the hue of the organisms inside.

The Latro Lamp is another great example of algae’s ability to shed a little light on the subject of indoor illumination. Designed by Mike Thompson, the conical light only needs a little CO2, sunlight, algae, and water to function. The has to be set outside during the day, and a battery stores the energy created by the algae for later in the evening. A light sensor modulates the lamp’s intensity and prevents the algae from becoming malnourished.  Acting as a bio-battery, the technology was made possible through research done by Stanford and Yansei universities.

Scientists at Cambridge University are laboring towards creating biovoltaic panels (BPVs) that use algae to power electronics much in the same manner as photovoltaics. Alex Driver and Carlos Peralta  understand that such a novel concept could be a little difficult for consumers to imagine, and have created several renderings of products that could possibly hit the market once the technology becomes viable. The researchers believe that their innovations could be stiff competition for solar panels in the next 5-10 years.

Are you ready for the algae revolution?

Forget the need for the Keystone XL pipeline or Diablo Canyon’s nuclear reactors. San Luis Obispo’s very own Cal Poly is paving the way for a green energy future thanks to some hearty  microorganisms and the contents of a toilet bowl. A research team dubbed the Algae Technology Group (ATG) has recently been awarded a $1.3 million grant by the Department of Energy to develop biofuels made from municipal wastewater and algae. The tiny plants not only help to clean water efficiently and inexpensively, but also produce energy and sequester carbon. Local governments will soon have a new method to purify water and can even sell to algae feedstock to refineries for a little extra revenue.

The ATG began back in 2006 and has since been working with faculty and students to research water reclamation and energy production. Their current project will use nine large “raceway” style ponds that cover about half an acre at the San Luis Obispo Water Reclamation Facility on Prado Road. Algae will grow in the ponds, using little inputs other than wastewater and sunlight. Some electricity is needed to circulate the water and run related equipment, but engineers believe that much of that energy could come from renewable sources in the future.

While still an emerging technology, the ATG estimates that with only ten percent of the market share in California, algae biofuel could reduce ratpayers bills by an accumulated $240 million a year. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that the nation could produce 21 billion gallons of algae biofuel annually. So, between dirty and expensive fossil fuels or cheap energy made from microscopic plants, which alternative would you choose?


The fight towards curbing global climate change may have found allies in some of the world’s smallest organisms.  Algae, bacteria and fungi are all lending a helping flagellum to produce the biofuels of the future.  Yes, the scum that grows in your bathtub may one day save the planet.  So, who can we thank for filling our tanks and powering our homes?

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii- or to the layperson, “pond scum” is being harnessed to produce hydrogen for fuel cells.  When the microscopic plants are deprived of sulfur and oxygen in their environments, they begin to produce hydrogen which in turn can be collected in a bio-reactor and utilized for the generation of electricity.  For a full profile on this wonder-slime, visit Wired’s article, Algae: Power Plant of the Future? or take a gander at NOVA’s video on algae fuel.

E. coli- Who knew this pathogen was good for so much more than a case of food poisoning? This amazing bacteria’s DNA has been manipulated to secrete biodiesel as a waste product.  Meet microbe engineer Jay Keasling, a scientist, bacteria-whisperer and entrepreneur, working on transforming these bacteria from creating the gas in your stomach to the gas in the tank of your car.

Gliocladium roseum– This little rainforest fungus stands out amongst its fellows in that it is able to produce a number of important fuel substances, including diesel compounds from cellulose (the sturdy cell walls of plants) and hydrocarbons. Its byproduct, dubbed “myco-diesel“, may be more efficient than many other biofuels because it does not require the extra step of fermentation in which the cellulose is broken down by a different set of enzymes or organisms. Instead, it cuts out the middle man and secretes the desired fuel directly.

From medicine to the combustion engine,  we are just beginning to scratch the surface of the power of our little partners and what we as humans are able to engineer them to accomplish.  Now that the discoveries have been made, more than microscopic changes must be made in our infrastructure to accommodate these new technologies. Regardless of how these shifts may occur, it is nice to know that from infinitesimal creatures can come great discoveries.  Good things really do come in small packages.