The US’ Montana State University (MSU) researchers are exploring a potential breakthrough in producing biofuels from algae.
Supported by a $3 million grant from the US Department of Energy, the research team announced that they are in the early stages of a three-year project focused on developing a biofuel process that could bypass a limitation that has curbed the industry, according to Robin Gerlach, a professor in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
The research team includes scientists from the Universities of Toledo and North Carolina, respectively.
“This could transform the algae biofuel industry,” said Gerlach.
Despite promising technology surrounding the conversion of oily substances from the algae into biodiesel, the costs of supplying the algae with supplemental carbon dioxide have discouraged commercial production, Gerlach said.
However, researchers now believe that a recently discovered strain of algae could be cultivated using only the ambient carbon dioxide of the atmosphere.
“We're really excited about this,” said Brent Peyton, professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute.
SLA-04, the algae strain in question, was discovered by researchers from the University of Toledo in an eastern Washington lake containing high levels of carbonate minerals similar to baking soda.
In the lake's unique environment, these algae have been shown to metabolise ambient carbon dioxide very efficiently, Peyton said.
“In the past we've found some algae and tried them out (with making biofuel),” Peyton continued.
“Now we're using state-of-the-art tools to move the technology forward. This is really quite advanced for a project on algae biofuel.”
Blake Wiedenheft, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in MSU's College of Agriculture and the College of Letters and Science, will explore the use of the genome editing technique called CRISPR for enhancing the algae's ability to produce the oils desired for biofuel production.