Algae Engineering: Biofuel and Electrical Advances

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Advances in Algae Engineering

Algae start blooming in a pond during summer months

In many fields of engineering, researchers are beginning to find uses for algae. Algae offers many potential benefits, including a cleaner alternative fuel source. Firstly, when algae is burnt, similar to fossil fuel, it releases CO2 into the atmosphere. However, unlike fossil fuels, when algae is grown it removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Also, algae can be continuously grown with very minimal impact on fresh water resources because it can be produced in ocean water as well as waste water, and if spilled into the environment it is biodegradable and essentially harmless . Compared to other biofuel crops, an algae harvest can yield anywhere between 10 and 100 times more fuel per unit area.i The US Department of Energy claims that if algae fuel replaced all of the petroleum fuel in the US it would require only 15,000 square miles or just 0.42%of the US land area. Alga is slowly becoming a blossoming tool in many fields of engineering.

Engineering Applications of Algae

The first application that is being challenged with algae engineering is electrical transfer. Recent findings have shown that proteins in a synthetic version of a marine bacterium are able to transfer electric current when touching the surface of a material. When the proteins in the algae come in contact with another material or surface, the cell membrane creates a conductive surface that allows for easy electricity transfer. One of the targeted uses for this new found technology is to use the bacteria to breakdown domestic agricultural waste where it would generate fairly large amounts of electricity that could be easily captured and used. Another possible solution is to have the bacteria work as small factories on the surface of electrodes where chemical reactions are taking place and have the chemical reactions in the cell use the power supplied by the electrode.ii The second application for algae in engineering is for use as biodiesel. After growing the algae a simple oil press extracts up to 75 percent of the oil from the algae that is being processed. The remaining algae is put through the hexane solvent method that, combined with the oil press, can extract up to 95 percent of oil. A computational fluid simulation has revealed the possibility of a new method known as the supercritical fluids method which has a high possibility of extracting up to 100% of the oil from algae. In this process carbon dioxide works as a supercritical fluid, and when it reaches its supercritical point it is infused with the algae, theoretically turning the algae completely into oil. The problem with this method is that when 95% of the oil can be extracted with the hexane method it is not worth the extra time and additional equipment for remaining 5%.iii Once biodiesel is produced it can be used in any motor that is converted to handle it. Currently no cars come standard to handle biodiesel and very little testing has been done on miles per gallon and emission statistics of the cars that can handle it. The third emerging use for algae is in biomedical engineering, where researchers have designed synthetic algae that can replicate a complex anti-cancer designer drug. Specifically, it is a genetically engineered alga that can produce a complex and expensive human therapeutic drug that is used to treat cancer. This engineering advance is crucial because most drugs such as this can not be produced in bacteria or in normal mammalian cells, but a genetically engineered version of a common green alga was able to successfully produce the drug with promise of being able to produce others.iv

To most people algae is simply a green plant that grows in water. It is not yet commonly known that there are many potential scientific advances that can occur through the study of algae. With more study and research algae can take a part in many scientific advances.

i Worldwatch Institute Biofuels for Transport: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century. 2007

ii The Engineer UEA Team Takes Step Towards Microbial Fuel Cells 25 March 2013

iii Gartner, John Wired Magazine “Algae:Power Plant of the Future?” 19 August 2012

iv Phys Org Engineering Algae to Make a Complex Anti-Cancer ‘Designer’ Drug 10 December 2012



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