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Transforming Algae Into a Practical Biofuel

NSF Award:

Development of a Sustainable Production Platform for Renewable Petroleum Based Oils in Algae  (University of Kentucky Research Foundation)

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Algae have great potential as a biofuel because they feed on readily available ingredients--sunlight and carbon dioxide. However, cultivating large amounts of this water-dwelling plant is challenging because as the plants grow, their increasing density stifles sunlight penetration.

To overcome this challenge, a collaborative research team at the University of Kentucky and Pennsylvania State University has isolated genes from the algae plant and is synthesizing them in the lab. They have also developed a new method to grow algae that increases yields to four times the current growth rate.

The ability to grow large amounts of algae and use it to produce a biofuel that easily converts to gasoline greatly improves the feasibility of using the plant to produce renewable energy. This photosynthetic route to biofuels also recycles carbon dioxide back into the fuel product. 

In Joseph Chappell's lab at the University of Kentucky, researchers discovered and characterized the algae genes responsible for producing a biofuel that is essentially the same as crude oil and superior in many ways to alternative alcohol or fat-derived biofuels. With the genes now isolated for its synthesis, there is the potential to express them in many different organisms to produce this biofuel. 

Wayne Curtis' lab at Pennsylvania State University developed photobioreactor systems and control strategies that allow the researchers to grow algae in cell concentrations that are more than 20 grams of cells per liter. The increased cell density will lead to less water usage and lower production costs.  

Images (1 of )

  • microscopic algae surrounded by oil
  • thin film algae photobioreactor
  • led-photodiode measures algae cell density
Algae surrounded by oil.
Wayne Curtis, Joe Chappell, Amalie Tuerk and Ryan Johnson; Penn State and University of Kentucky
Thin film algae photobioreactor.
Wayne Curtis, Joe Chappell, Amalie Tuerk and Ryan Johnson; Penn State and University of Kentucky
LED-photodiode measures algae cell density.
Wayne Curtis, Joe Chappell, Amalie Tuerk and Ryan Johnson; Penn State and University of Kentucky

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