Episode 34 – Algae Biofuel the Future

What is algae biofuel? How do we make it? And how may it be used in the future? In today’s episode of Lab Notes, Junyao Gu interviews the algae biofuel research team at the Duke University Marine Lab, including faculty, technicians, and current and previous students, to discuss the future of biofuel in the context of their research.

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Junyao Gu head shot

Junyao Gu, 4th year PhD candidate at Dr. Zachary Johnson‘s lab.

Junyao grew up in a coastal city named Lianyungang in Jiangsu Province, China. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science and a Bachelor of Laws degree in Law from Jilin University, China in 2017. She graduated with a Master’s degree from the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in 2019, where she found her deep love for exploring the tiny mysterious microbial world and had a wonderful time doing research in Dr. Sarah Preheim’s lab. She joined Dr. Zackary Johnson’s research group as a Ph.D. student in 2019 and she currently studies the microbial ecology and metagenomics of marine phytoplankton.

Instagram: @gu_junyao


Sara Blinebry head shot

Sara Blinebry, Research technician in Dr. Zackary Johnson’s lab

Since joining the Johnson Lab as a technician in 2013, I have enjoyed being a part of many projects, but my main focus has been studying the effects of a changing climate on marine microbes (PICO), as well as growing algae both in the lab and in outdoor raceway ponds as part of MAGIC, which seeks to develop marine microalgae as a sustainable feedstock for feed, food and fuel.

Zackary Johnson head shot

Zackary Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Molecular Biology in Marine Science at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment

Dr. Zackary Johnson’s research group studies the abundance, diversity and activity of marine microbes, focusing on Prochlorococcus, the most abundant phytoplankton in the open ocean. Our group also leads MAGIC (Marine AlGae Industrialization Consortium) that is developing microalgae as an economical and reduced carbon source of biofuel, feeds and other products.


Sarah Loftus head shot

Sarah Loftus, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Contractor at the U.S. Department of Energy, Duke Ph.D. Alumna 

Sarah currently works at the U.S. Department of Energy where she helps strategize and implement funding opportunities for marine renewable energy research and development. She earned her PhD from the Duke Marine Lab researching algae growth for biofuel production. She also has experience and interest in environmental journalism and science communication.

Twitter: @saraheloftus

Bryce O'Brien head shot

Bryce O’Brien, Coastal Environmental Management Master’s Student at the Duke University Marine Lab 

As a Technician in the Johnson Lab, I work to better understand the role of algaculture in promoting clean energy and sustainable food systems. I am interested in the multifaceted benefits and regenerative qualities of sustainable ocean farming and am eager to explore its potential, particularly in the context of a changing climate. Other research questions that I am interested in exploring include: can algaculture promote carbon cycling and in turn influence ocean acidification and global climate; how will a changing ocean impact the prevalence and health of microalgae and the ecological and coastal communities connected to them; and, what are the broader implications of algaculture for the sustainable development and resilience of coastal communities?

Courtney Swink head shot

Courtney Swink, Biologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Duke Master’s Alumna 

Courtney is a marine microbial ecologist studying phototroph-heterotroph interactions in bioenergy systems at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Courtney received her B.S. in Marine Science and Biology at the University of South Carolina where she worked in the Marine Sediments Research Lab. She then earned her M.S. in Marine Science and Conservation at Duke University where she studied the microbial community dynamics of outdoor microalgae raceway ponds advised by Dr. Zackary Johnson. At Duke she was also a research assistant on the Marine AlGae Industrialization Consortium (MAGIC) project, a DOE funded project growing microalgae for biofuel and other natural products at semi-industrial scale.

Transcript & References