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Could cyanobacteria be biofuels’ future?

US based HelioBioSys has patented a group of three single celled, algae like organisms that, when grown together, produce high quantities of sugar just right for making biofuels.

Sandia National Laboratories is now working with HelioBioSys to determine whether farming the organisms on a large scale would be successful.

HelioBioSys works with organisms called cyanobacteria, which for centuries were mistaken for algae. Like algae, cyanobacteria grow in water (and are often mistakenly referred to as ‘blue-green algae’). Unlike algae, however, marine cyanobacteria excrete sugar directly into water where they grow.

In a Sandia labs statement, biochemist Ryan Davis explained that a typical algae operation might grow 1 gram of biomass per litre (0.04 ounces per quarter gallon). Small scale testing on the cyanobacteria shows they can produce 4 to 7 grams per litre of biomass (up to 0.25 ounces per quarter gallon), a concentration improvement of up to 700%.

Essentially, the initial tests on cyanobacteria show that growing it for sugars is more efficient than growing biomass for the same reason. Furthermore, filtering sugar from water is a much simpler and therefore less expensive process than extracting lipids from large quantities of algae mass. The Sandia statement also observes that compared to biomass, sugar is easy to convert into a range of chemicals and fuels, and cyanobacteria do not require additional fertiliser to make their sugars.

These potential cost savings could make biofuels competitive with petroleum, according to the Sandia statement.

Scientists from Sandia and HelioBioSys are now trying to understand cyanobacteria’s sugar production, in order to maximise it. As Davis explains. “We’re trying to deconstruct the magical sauce in this cyanobacteria consortium and learn what conditions are optimal for large scale growth.”