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.
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.
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, 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, 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.
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, 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
Seas the Day Episode 34 – Algae Biofuel the Future
[Oyster Waltz begins]
Junyao: Today, on Seas the Day…….
Courtney: That was why biofuels becomes such a like hot thing in the last you know 20, 30 years, because the idea is this could be a good band aid to help you know wean us away from traditional fuels.
Sarah: So a strength of algae biofuels is that they can be grown in areas that couldn’t otherwise be used for agricultural land so they wouldn’t necessarily be competing with any other land uses.
Zackary: Algae smell like everything from kind of a fruity aroma, berries, to more grassy smell.
Sara: With our swimming pool, at the beginning of the summer I’d have to spend weeks killing the algae. and then I’d be coming to work and time to grow algae.
Bryce: Last night, I dreamed about harvesting algae and that is not a rarity in my life at this point.
Junyao: Hello listeners, welcome to Seas the Day. It’s Junyao Gu.
Oil price fluctuations, oil shortage, and energy crisis, these words are part of daily conversations, especially in the past 2 years, due to the increased demand from the economy reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced oil supplies and increased prices stemming in part from the war in Ukraine.
On June 14, 2022, the national-average regular unleaded gas prices reached around $5 per gallon, up to 63% higher than the around $3 national average a year ago. In addition, according to the BP British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy 2021, at our current rate of consumption, the world will run out of oil reserves in around 50 years.
Both rising oil prices and oil shortages emphasize the need for renewable energy. Among various sources of renewable energy, some people think biofuel, especially algae biofuel, is the fuel of the future.
What is algae biofuel? How do we make it? And what’s the future of it?
In today’s episode of Lab Notes, the algae biofuel research team at the Duke University Marine Lab, including faculty, technicians, and current and previous students, share with us their stories of doing algae biofuel related research, and discuss the future of biofuel.
Here they are:
Sara: Hi I’m Sara Blinebry. I’m a technician at Zackary Johnson’s lab. I’ve been at the Marine lab for a total of ten years and in Zackary’s lab for nine.
Zackary: I’m Zachary Johnson, I’m an associate professor at Duke University, part of the Duke Marine Laboratory.
Sarah: My name is Sarah Loftus, I graduated from the Duke Marine Lab with my PhD, and I was researching algae growth for biofuel production. And right now, I’m currently working in the United States Department of Energy in Washington DC.
Bryce: My name is Bryce. I’m a second-year master’s student in the coastal environmental management Program. I’m also a technician in the Johnson lab. I joined in the spring of 2021.
Courtney: My name is Courtney Swink, and I am currently a support staff scientist at Lawrence Livermore national lab at Livermore, California.
Junyao: Before sharing stories about doing biofuel-related research, you may wonder what is biofuel? Dr. Sarah Loftus gives us a brief introduction.
Sarah: yay Biofuels are basically a type of fuel that comes from any living thing like plants, or algae, or bacteria. Instead of taking carbon that’s buried underground like fossil fuels and burning them so that the carbon is released into the atmosphere, which is increasing the net amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it’s kind of a way of recycling carbon so that we can grow plants and then turn them into fuel, so that we’re more having a recycling of the carbon rather than having a net increase. And there are a lot of different types of conversion processes we can use. For example, we can take the sugars in plants and ferment them into ethanol. Or we can take the fats and algae and convert them to biodiesel, or we can also digest plants or plant waste with anaerobic microorganisms and make methane gas. So there’s lots of different types of biofuels out there.
Junyao: So far, biofuels have three generations. The first generation is using food crops, like corn; the second generation is using non-food crops, like wood, organic waste; and the third generation is using algae. Algal biofuels came to mainstream consciousness in the early 2000s, with dozens of companies raising hundreds of millions of dollars in hopes of ultimately extracting fuel oil from algae. Dr. Sarah Loftus continues introducing the strengths and weakness of algae biofuels.
Sarah: There was a lot of algae research funded by the Department of Energy in the 1970s when fossil fuel costs were higher. But the benefits of growing algae for biofuels as opposed to crops like corn is that they don’t require agricultural crop land. They can be grown in these artificial raceway ponds on in the desert, or places that we otherwise couldn’t grow crops. And they could also be grown with salty water that can be drawn up from the ocean. So they wouldn’t be using precious freshwater resources. They could also use waste carbon dioxide to grow so taking carbon dioxide emitted from some power plant say and feeding it into an algae culture and could also potentially be grown on salty or brackish water that couldn’t be used to irrigate crop.
Algae biofuels could also make liquid fuels that could be used in things that are that still require liquid fuels so something like a plane. And some potential disadvantages are that we do have to grow the crop of algae, so that requires resources and facilities to do that. And also we probably couldn’t be using algae renewable energy to power an electric car so that would require other forms of renewable energy to supply that type of electricity.
Currently, it’s still pretty costly to produce algae biofuels so more research is going into how we can make those processes cheaper, such as by increasing the algae productivity, making other products from the algae to increase the value of all of the different parts of the algae so that eventually we can get to a lower cost algae fuel that’s a bit more competitive with fossil fuel prices.
Junyao: Courtney adds on how we can take advantage of the coproducts from algae biofuels.
Courtney: Coproducts is a big sort of driver of ways we can drive down the cost of algae biofuel. If we’re just using the lipid part of the algae, there’s other parts of the cell that we could use for other products.
And so protein is a big one. Thinking about algae as a vegetarian source of Omega-3 fatty acids, right? So people who have cardiovascular issues or have any kind of heart disease, they often get told to take fish oil pills to increase their Omega-3 fatty acids that helps with heart health. But if you’re vegetarian, you don’t even know you don’t want to consume fish, like myself, I’m vegetarian. So, algae is a great vegetarian source of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Other products could be like as I said a supplement for livestock feed. So thinking about cows and chickens and sort of any kind of animal we grow for livestock, consumption, we could use algae as a good protein supplement for their food.
Algae also have been made into the beauty cosmetic products, right? There are many like face creams that you can put algae in.
So there’s a lot of cool things you can make with algae if you just get creative. And I think we’re learning more and more about the cool things you can use. There was a study that looked at cows which consumed a certain type of algae in their diet had reduced methane emissions, so they have less gas, which is kind of one of the big problems with growing cows for livestock purposes – their methane emissions are really high. So there’s all kinds of cool benefits and things we’re still learning about it.
Junyao: With these basic ideas about biofuel and algae biofuel, now it is time to turn the spotlight to the algae biofuel team at Duke Marine Lab and what research they are doing now.
The Duke algae biofuel team call themselves the MAGIC team. While MAGIC is very appropriate in my humble opinion, it actually stands for the “Marine Algae Industrialization Consortium”.
It was awarded $5.2 million by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) in 2015, aiming to combine algae biofuel and high-value bioproducts to meet the renewable fuel standard.
MAGIC is led by Duke University, but it is a large collaborative project. Professor Zackary Johnson, who serves as MAGIC principal investigator, gives us a brief overview.
Zackary Johnson: So MAGIC stands for the Marine Algae Industrialization Consortium. It is a group of universities and private companies that have come together to develop, initially, to develop marine algae, single cell algae, as a sustainable source of fuel.
The overall goals of the MAGIC project is: One to identify strains of algae that are promising for biofuels or other bio products. The second thing is to grow those algae at larger scale. So we’ve grown them from test tubes to one liter size, to one thousand liters, to ten thousand liters on up to one hundred thousand liters, so very large scale processes, and that’s to demonstrate technologies that are applicable to industrialization or commercialization.
Second, we’re trying to take that algae and separate it into parts that we care about. Our team we take the oil, analyze it and look at it as a fuel precursor. But we also look at the rest of the algae – what’s left over and test that out as an animal feed. Our group has done numerous studies with chickens or fish, salmon, shrimp and other animals, and shown that algae can be a very healthy, and growth promoting, and health promoting ingredient to animal feed.
And then finally we also do is an economic and lifecycle assessment. Is this economically viable? Is that sustainable? Is it environmentally friendly? Is it better than what we’re doing now? So we look for ways to increase the sustainability to do something that’s actually better for the environment than just because we do it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. And so thinking about it from both an economic and also a lifecycle or an environmental perspective, or a super important overall successful project.
Junyao: As mentioned by Zackary, MAGIC has three goals and the first one is to identify the suitable algae strain to make promising biofuels and other bioproducts. But how do you do that?
Courtney: When we’re looking for strains of algae that are good for biofuels, often you want to look at their properties in terms of what they need to grow, right? What kind of resources do they need? Do they need something special? Like oftentimes we don’t grow diatoms because they require silica, which is an extra nutrient you have to add, which is extra costs. So finding algae that don’t require a lot of nutrients or don’t require a lot of extra things.
And they have a high lipid content, right? So lipid it is the sort of the biomolecule, if you will, that would be used to translate into fuel. So, lipid content is a big one that people look at.
People look at growth rate, you know, some algae grow faster than others. Say an algae that grows close to shore that is used to having high nutrient influx they can grow really fast, so they are better biofuel candidates.
But then also, I think the important thing when you think about is where are you growing these algae, right? You have to kind of consider the environment. And that’s some of the work that I worked on: what the temperature was? What the, you known, rainfall was? How windy was it? All of these factors determine how fast the algae grew. And you don’t want to put an algae say like a polar algae, right, that may have high lipid content and grows really fast, you don’t want to try to grow that in insane North Carolina and the summer right because this probably won’t grow well.
So a combination of where are you growing it, what are its nutrient inputs, and then what is the product of interest: if it’s biofuel, you’re looking at lipid content; if its food. its protein content.
Junyao: Various strains of both freshwater algae and marine algae can be used to make algae biofuels. Marine algae is the main focus in the MAGIC project, and Zackary tells us why.
Zackary Johnson: Lots of reasons we grow a marine algae. (1) It grows fast. we can get a new crop of marine algae every two to three days, unlike traditional agriculture where you get at most two to three crops a year; (2) It doesn’t use fresh water. So by using marine sources and more accurately for water quality, we don’t impact the freshwater usage; (3) The third reason is the marine algae uses resources very efficiently. It produce things we need, and so in particular for biofuel, those are two major components: one is oil. So marine algae, like many plants, contains fats or oils, and so that those can be used directly or processed to produce some sort of biofuel, whether that be biodiesel or another liquid fuel. Other types of marine algae can have high levels of carbohydrates or sugars, just like other plants. And so those carbohydrates can also be used to generate fuel and other products.
Junyao: But nothing is perfect, not even marine algae. If you want to make biofuel and other bioproducts, like chicken feed, at the same time, marine algae strains may not be the best choice, and can cause some funny and unexpected challenges. Such as… Thirsty Chicken? Here’s Courtney
Courtney: Algae is very difficult to separate from water, especially micro-algae because they’re so small. And another issue we noticed a lot with our products that we tested downstream, was that it had a high ash content, meaning it was very very salty. One of the things that we learned through this project was the chickens were very thirsty experience they had very salty food, right? That’s the downfall of using a marine algae,
Once a month we had big monthly calls with our entire team. Zackary being the main PI, kind of contact person. But you know we had our different collaborators who did the downstream part of the project on the call. And then that’s when they you known tell us you know chicken seem to be pretty thirsty and then Zackary would be like yeah well the ash content was higher than we had like to see. And then you know put into it was just it was cool to be in the room right to like see the science happening and kind of people putting two and two together and then thinking about Oh, this is a new challenge that we didn’t necessarily expect, you know, and then that helps inform future projects which is the cool part right that’s science, especially when you’re trying to do a very applied project, this was very much applied science.
Junyao: Haha I just could control my laughing while Courtney was sharing this story. Courtney told me that to save chicken from being thirsty, lots of companies will rinse the salt off of the marine algae, or just use freshwater algae instead, since they contain less salt. Currently, a project about growing a freshwater green algae named Chlamydomonas to make chicken feed is ongoing at the Duke Marine Lab. Bryce O’Brien and Sara Blinebry are the main team members working on this project.
Bryce: This is actually I first time working with freshwater algae. We have a contract with the US Department of Agriculture right now. We’re growing Chlamydomonas as a chicken feed. All the algae that we’re growing this summer, I believe, is going to be sent to either Alabama or New York for further testing on, like the viability of this algae as a chicken feed.
And we’re growing Chlamydomonas because there’s no cell wall on the Chlamydomonas that we are growing now, which means that we can genetically modify it fairly easily.
And so we’re growing it control right now and then ideally once we reach this target biomass, we can move on to a genetically modified Chlamydomonas. And I think that strain would be more nutrient packed chicken feed. You know when they can modify, they can add nutrients, they can kind of plump it up and make it a more efficient feed.
Junyao: No matter which algae strain you pick, growing them at a larger scale is always the key starting point to make biofuels and other bioproducts. But how and where can that be accomplished?
The laboratory and industrial cultivation of algae relied on photobioreactors, or PBRs. A PBR is a cultivation system designed for growing algae using artificial light sources or solar light to facilitate photosynthesis. PBRs can have different shapes and components, and can be either closed systems or open systems, depending on which algae strain is grown and what light and water source the algae require.
As the Duke Marine Lab is located on Piver’s Island and is surrounded by seawater, putting PBRs outside makes it very accessible to pump filtered and sterilized coastal seawater into them. This purified seawater, combined with carbon dioxide and fertilizers, can become the medium of the PBR to grow marine algae. So, here at the Duke Marine Lab, the MAGIC team has four 1000-liter PBRs and two 5000-liter PBRs. These six PBRs are all raceway ponds, and the water is kept in constant motion with a powered paddle wheel.
The MAGIC team has grown both marine and freshwater algae as introduced above. Bryce told me they are currently farming the freshwater strain in the PBR, which requires inoculating the pond; That just means adding enough algae into the pond so that the algae can keep growing and flourishing in the pond.
Bryce: enn we’re farming a freshwater strain. Right now we’re working with a 1000-liter raceway pond, that’s where the algae lives right now and that’s where we’ll sample every day. So we sampled the algae daily for various parameters, just to kind of monitor like overall health and growth rate.
To inoculate that pond, it’s a bit of a scaling up procedure. So we’ll start with, we have these 250 milliliter tissue culture flasks, and we’ll use those to inoculate a 10 liters carboy, and then we’ll use that to inoculate 20 liters you know so it’s like a bit of a ladder moving volumes to inoculate a little bit of a larger volume and then we’ll eventually move outside to the pond. Those are what we use every week to restart our ponds outside.
And it is just the coolest thing out there when we’ve got algae going and the paddle wheels are spinning and it’s a really fun spot to work.
Junyao: Once there is enough algae biomass in the raceway ponds, The team will begin harvesting the algae. Courtney described what the harvesting looks like.
Courtney: We had a sort of semi-harvesting system. So we used a flow through centrifuge and a membrane filtration system, and we use those in combination.
The idea was the membrane system had a cross flow membrane. So we would flow our watered culture through, and it would slowly dewater the algae and sort of concentrated down to a more concentrated liquid. And then that went into the flow through centrifuge, which would spin the water really really fast and the algae stuck to the sides of the centrifuge and then the water that was left over, you know went out a flow outside. And the then we took that sludge, if you will, and we froze it, and then we freeze dried it and then it became like a crispy sort of almost like a powdery sort of product, it was basically completely dewatered.
And then we mailed that product to our collaborators who then did the lipid extraction and then that lipid extraction would be the lipid part, being the oil that you would then use as like a crude oil equivalent if you will and then it would go through a refinery process to go to make fuel. And then the other collaborator we had, used the protein, do the protein extraction out of that powder and then used it as an animal feed supplement and he tested it on chicken.
Junyao: Now, it all sounds like magic in theory, right? But of course, in practice, challenges may arise in each and every step.
Here is Dr. Sarah Loftus, on how algae may at times behave just like my houseplants:
Sarah: Sometimes for some reason in the lab, even though you’re giving the algae the perfect conditions, the perfect nutrients, water, temperature, light, sometimes they just won’t grow. And that’s really disappointing. And then like with any research, sometimes they’re just lab instruments that don’t work and there’s a lot of troubleshooting involved.
Junyao: And just like in a vegetable garden, Bryce tells me sometimes little creatures want to eat the fruits of your labor.
Bryce: Earlier this summer, we had an issue with little copepods, like a little grazer. This copepod was eating all of our algae. And we’d come into work, and the pond would look like a green brown like really unhealthy shade, and we knew that you know something was up.
We have come up with like some cleaning protocol, different tricks of the trade to get rid of them. They don’t like bleach, they don’t like acid. And so we’ve started inoculating our pond with, well we’re using this different media, we’ve never used this media before, and one of the components in the media is an acid. So we’ll add that first, and so will drop the pH of the pond super low like four or like even below four. And seems like that kind of kills everything in the pond and will kind of just like let that super acidic water circulate for a bit before we add the rest of the media and that brings the pH backup to something that is suitable for algae.
But we have kind of identified things that are helpful with dealing with grazers, which is really great. Because when you do have a grazer problem, it’s really hard. It can be hard to move past that just because there’s so many like little nooks and crannies in the pond for them to hide, you know. And you really just got like if you clean the pond and you don’t get rid of a couple like they’ll come back you know. And so it is a bit of a hard issue to deal with sometimes but things are looking to get out there and yeah seems like we’ve turned the page a bit.
Junyao: Sara Blinebry talked about some other problems may show up during growing algae.
Sara: The biggest challenges that we’ve had to deal with have generally been dealing with unexpected crashes of the time. So when the algae is growing well and you think everything is fine and then one day you come in and it’s all dead or there’s suddenly little things swimming around in there and eating all the algae, that’s what we would refer to as a crash.
So there are many different reasons that a pond could crash.
For example, if it gets too hot. Where we’ve put our algae ponds is in direct sunlight that gets no shade whatsoever. And so in the heat of the summer here in North Carolina, it gets quite hot up to 100 degrees or higher. And so our ponds can get, equally, as warm in particular if, in the summertime we have a lot of rain storms that roll through, kind of in the middle of the summer, and so we have covers that keep the rain out but though they also keep the heat in, the sun, it creates a bit of a greenhouse effect, and so it actually can heat the ponds up even more than than the air and so some algae can’t tolerate you know such extreme temperatures and so, in that case, they would also die.
Other things, like you know of course we make our own nutrient stocks here at the lab. If something went wrong and that became contaminated or wasn’t made properly or something and then we use that to start the pond that could also lead to problems as well.
It’s also because we’re so close to the water here, if it’s quite windy we can actually get salt spray blowing on to or into the ponds. And so, as you can imagine, a single drop of seawater has many many organisms in it and so any amount of salt spray could potentially contaminate a pond and cause it to crash as well.
In North Carolina we also have to deal with the occasional hurricane, and so in that situation, we have to remove as much as we can have our infrastructure from outdoors so it doesn’t get damaged in the event that a hurricane does come close enough to cause damage. So in a location where you wouldn’t have to worry about things like that, that’s certainly an advantage.
Junyao: Courtney told me that harvesting algae can also be challenging.
Courtney: Our raceway ponds were 5000 liters. That’s a lot of liquid to have to you know dewater, essentially or you know that’s a lot of algae that you need to remove that water from. And it’s such a big scale that yeah we had a lot of challenges and trying to get as much of that algae out of the water. Because a lot of times we would test the water coming out of the centrifuge, the flow through centrifuge, the idea being that that would be the algae free water and there’s always stuff that goes through, and doesn’t you know it’s not 100% efficient. And so a lot of the work our group worked on, especially our postdocs, try to optimize what’s the right settings to use, what speed to spin the centrifuge at, to where we’re trying not to use a lot of energy, centrifuges take a lot of electricity. So we’re trying to be conscious of balancing that use of energy with you know getting as much algae out of the water as possible, so we’re not wasting anything so definitely a lot of challenges with getting efficient harvesting.
Junyao: These are just some of the many challenges that may arise from algae farming, and I think partly explain why biofuel is still at an early age and not widely applied in our daily lives.
So, looking ahead, what’s the future of biofuels? How does biofuel compare to other renewable energy sources, such as solar energy and wind energy? I asked the MAGIC team their thoughts.
Courtney: yeah it’s interesting thinking about biofuels in the future of biofuels.
The way forward for biofuel is definitely through diesel, biodiesel. Because if you think about it planes, especially the military, and that’s why my lab in particular has kind of with our defense focused mission has gotten into biofuel a lot, right? so we have tanks, we have military planes, we have commercial planes, trucks, all of these types of vehicles require diesel, heavy duty diesel fuel. And those are not gonna be able to switch to electric near as fast as a small personal car right? So those kinds of things they they still need a fuel source. And the idea with biofuels again is, we could maybe grow those here in our own country, so we are reducing our reliance on a foreign oil source, that’s been kind of a hot topic, you know, in the news a lot lately is thinking about you know how do we as a any country, think about how can I reduce my reliance on foreign oil source well if you can grow it and yay.
Junyao: Zackary also had an interesting perspective.
Zackary: We don’t think that algae, or any biofuel, will be the only source of renewable fuel in the future. Different renewable energies have different advantages and disadvantages.
And so currently, solar and wind are actually very economically competitive. And in many cases, they’re cheaper to produce than fossil fuel derived energy. But one of the challenges of them is storage. How do you store that energy? People are working on it, but it’s the current challenge. And for storing that, how do you store that very densely so it can produce lots of energy?
Fuel derived from plants can really be stored densely like gasoline, like diesel, like jet fuel. And so we view biofuels as having an advantage there that it can be stored in a dense fashion archive for at night when solar is not there, or stored in a tank, or when wind is not blowing, and um, or put on a jet um and that allows us to fly in a sustainable way. And so I think we view it as part of the solution.
Junyao: As I talked with the MAGIC team, one idea popped up in my mind: Could we make algae biofuel at home in the future? Maybe one day we could make our own biofuel in our backyards or garages? I asked this question to Sara Blinebry.
Sara: Growing the algae is the easy part. I will say anybody that’s had a swimming pool or even a bucket in their backyard that water got in, well you know in the offseason for your swimming pool if you don’t treat it with a lot of chemicals, it will become an algae pond essentially. I do believe it’s definitely would be easy for the average person to grow some amount of algae if they had a house with a yard and some space.
However, being able to grow it at the scale and the high concentration that you would be to be able to harvest it and really make really be able to use it as your primary source of fuel, I think we’re going to be a way off from that.
And so I don’t really believe that most people are going to be able to do that anytime soon unless they just invent some magic box, that you can just pour the algae in and then fuel comes out.
Junyao: Haha who doesn’t want that magic box? But considering the strengths and challenges of this kind of research, what is the best way to move forward? Courtney stressed the importance of collaboration among different institutions.
Courtney: I think the consensus is that the best use of money when you’re funding biofuel research algae biofuel, at least research, is that it’s better to just have a couple of these, what we call consortiums working on these goals.
So having projects like MAGIC or some of the projects I’ve been on here that have partners with university and industry and national labs are the best. The hybrid of the national lab next with the company mix with the university each has their own sort of challenges and strengths.
So at the university setting, you have these very specialized individuals, PIs, Grad students, etc. who know that organism of interest very very well. And they are on the ground in the lab working with that bug and that sort of specialized knowledge and slower pace of research is needed.
But then say the company which has resources for scaling. And just has the money to and, like the pacing of an of a company is much faster right. If something doesn’t work, they give up on it and move on, right? Say the university you’re going to troubleshoot that for months on end. You know just because it’s intellectually interesting.
And then the national lab is sort of kind of somewhere in between, right? So we have these deliverables that we have to achieve as part of our sort of mission and part of our different projects we have, we have to have certain deliverables. But at the same time, we still have sort of a university setting of like we have these PIs were very specialized and and we work in that research-based environment.
Junyao: So to re-cap: algae biofuel, as the third generation of biofuel, has specific advantages that make it a very promising and competitive renewable energy source for the future. Besides making biofuel, algae can also make other useful bioproducts; and profits from these coproducts of biofuels can help lower the price of biofuels and make it more economically viable. However, although growing algae and harvesting algae seems easy in theory, there exist many difficulties in practice. Making biofuels economically and sustainability is challenging, and many institutions are collaborating to produce biofuels. In the future, relying on only one single energy source seems not feasible. Instead, a combination of different renewable energy sources is favorable. As with many other aspects of life, the answer seems to lie in the beauty of diversity.
[‘Oyster Waltz’ theme song]
Junyao: Before we wrap up, I want to say a huge thank you to all of the interviewees. I am so proud of working with these wonderful people in the same lab and really appreciate how much I have learned from them. They have more fantastic stories about algae biofuels and you can learn more about each of them on our website, at sites.nicholas.duke.edu/seastheday/. Or if you are here at Duke Marine Lab, come to the big raceway algae ponds on campus and say hi to the MAGIC team and to their cute growing green algae! The team members are happy to share with you what happens in the algae ponds, whether today’s algae is happy or not, why they smell like algae, why they have algae on their cloths and face, …….
Junyao: We hope you enjoyed today’s episode. This podcast was written and produced by me Junyao Gu, with support from the Seas the Day Team. Our theme song is written and recorded by Joe Morton. Our artwork is by Stephanie Hillsgrove. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter or Instagram @seasthedaypod and leave us a rating wherever you listen to podcasts.
Thanks for your listening and see you next time!
[theme song fades away]
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- Neto, J. M., Komesu, A., Martins, L. H. D. S., Gonçalves, V. O., De Oliveira, J. A. R., & Rai, M. (2019). Third-generation biofuels: An overview. Sustainable Biofuel and Biomass, 261-280. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128176542000101