Scientists at Michigan State University have revealed a way to enhance oil production and harvest using ‘sea sludge’.
The biofuel production platform that uses two species of marine algae and soil fungi has been published in Biotechnology for Biofuels. That platform lowers the costs of cultivation and harvesting whilst increasing productivity. These two factors are currently holding back biofuels from being used more frequently.
Nannochloropsis oceanica, and fungus and Mortierella elongate, are both species of alga that produce oils capable of being harvested for human use. For example, they are components in products like biofuels that can power cars, and are in omega-3 fatty acids that can benefit the health of a person’s heart.
When both organisms are placed in the same environment, the tiny algae attach to the fungi to create big masses that are visible to the naked eye. This is an aggregation method that is called bio-flocculation.
When the Nannochloropsis oceanica, and fungus and Mortierella elongate are harvested together, the organisms produce more oil than if they had been harvested by themselves.
The study’s co-author and research associate for the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Zhi-Yan Du explained how they “used natural organisms with high affinity for each other.”
He continued to describe how “The algae are very productive, and the fungus we use is neither toxic to us nor edible. It’s a very common soil fungus that can be found in your back yard.”
Other advantages to the biofuel system discovery include; sustainability, because it doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, cost-savings, as the big masses of algae and fungi are easily captured with simple tools and an easier scalability, as the organisms are wild strains that have not been genetically modified.
Researchers for the project also debated how their findings solve two issues that impede on biofuel production. The first being how their bio-flocculation approach differs from previous biofuels systems, due to theirs not relying on only one species of algae. Systems that only rely on one species suffer from low oil productivity, making for poorer results.
The second issue the researchers feel they have solved is the high cost of harvesting oil due to algae being so small and difficult to collect. This has meant that harvesting for the biofuels systems can take nearly 50% of oil production costs. Zhi-Yan Du explained how “with bio-flocculation, the aggregates of fungi and algae are easy to harvest with simple and cheap tools.”
In the future, the scientists would like to mass produce biofuels with the new bio-flocculation system. Also aware of the entire genomes of both organisms, the scientists feel as though they could implement genetic engineering tools as to further advance the method.