Plant biologist Heike Winter-Sederoff and her team investigate the prospects of algae biofuels.
Heike Winter-Sederoff has an eye for recognizing the potential in some of the smallest and most commonly overlooked things.
This summer Sederoff, assistant professor of plant biology, sent experiments on a common garden weed to the International Space Station. Now she's looking to make biofuels out of an algae commonly used in fish feed to make salmon orange. She's also investigating the oily properties of the camelina seed, a mustard plant that thrives in poor conditions.
Unlike biodiesel and ethanol, Sederoff is using the Dunaliella salina algae to produce lipids and fatty acids that burn similarly to petroleum.
"The oils this algae produces will be converted into a fuel that can be substituted for petroleum based fuels," Sederoff said.
Unlike ethanol, which is only a supplement, algae biofuels can replace petroleum fuels 100 percent.
"Ethanol is only an additive," Sederoff said. "If you're driving a car you can only use 15 percent of your fuel as ethanol. The biofuels we are making will be ‘drop in replacements,' or complete substitutes."
Sederoff said algae fuels will be the most viable solution to finding a replacement to oil. After starting in 2009, the multidiscipline research team has invested their efforts in to converting natural algae into small fuel factories.
"The algae can control how its genes serve its needs, like any organism. This includes lipid production and control. We want to override that," Sederoff said. "We want to keep that oil production switch on."
Amy Gruden, associate professor of microbiology, is working to isolate genes in extremophile archaeabacteria—the living relics of ancient prokaryotic bacteria that thrive in extreme conditions. High salinity environments interest Gruden and Sederoff most.
"I work with halophilic bacteria, which are extremely salt tolerant," Gruden said. "The algae we are using is a halophile itself, so it grows in sea water. The reason why we went with this is so we don't have to worry about freshwater usage, which is a commodity we want to save on in the biofuels process."
Gruden is working to transform extremophile genes into the genetic material of the algae, but the team hasn't been successful in finding the exact locus, or location on a chromosome, to place the bacteria genes.
"So far the algae has been spitting the genes back at us, but all we need is some time to find where it will fit," Sederoff said. "Give us time, we just got started."
The research team just sequenced the genetic blueprint of the Dunaliella algae through an institution in China, according to Sederoff.
Although Sederoff's lab on the top floor of Gardner Hall is one of only a handful of labs looking into the potential of algae, the biofuel business is becoming a topic serious international examination.
"Biofuels, just like petroleum, is an international business and it's only going to grow. It's got to." Sederoff said. "In Southeast Asia there is a big business in palm oil, another biofuel option."
According to Gruden and Sederoff, the military is looking to turn to biofuels in the near future. Sederoff said any car company can produce a battery that can power a truck, but aircraft rely on hydrocarbon fuels for combustion. The Air Force plans to operate on 50 percent biofuels by 2016.
"The military has made a huge commitment to biofuels," Sederoff said. "And if the military can become independent on oil, then we can forget about all those wars."
In addition to algae-based biofuels, Sederoff is researching the potential of biofuels made from the camelina seed, which has a high oil content of 40 percent according to the USDA. This robust plant grows in poor soils and dry climates and requires little fertilizer. The Native American Resource Council for Energy is keen to build camelina farms and processing plants on reservations—which are historically infamous for being on marginal lands.
Unlike sugarcane or corn-derived ethanol, algae and camelina biofuels won't compete with the food supply, according to Sederoff.
"Producing ethanol requires incredible amounts of fertilizer and fresh water, so it's unsustainable," Sederoff said. "We can culture our algae in salt water. We can grow camelina blindfolded. So we really think this could be our solution."
According to Sederoff, biofuels have come a long way since the beginning, but she thinks this new generation of biofuels will be the answer to the post-petroleum energy market.
"It's exciting to be on the cutting edge, but it still requires a lot of work," Sederoff said. "But it's been an honor working with the whole spectrum—biologists, engineers, economists, biochemists, microbiologists—to try to address our current issues."
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