Increasing Biomass Production of Algae in Carbon-Enriched Areas

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This is a picture of industrial, CO2 rich emissions. This harmful pollution can actually be used to promote biomass growth for biofuels.

This post is a response to another blog post written by Daniel Kuester on Renewable Energy World.com.  To read the full article, click here.

Researchers at Iowa State University(ISU) have discovered a way to significantly increase the rate of biomass production of algae in carbon-enriched environments (or environments with a sufficient supply of CO2 for algae growth).  The research shows that the algae production can be increased by 50-80%.

The process is focused around two genes found in algae (LCIA and LCIB) that work to capture CO2 from the atmosphere to promote algae growth in CO2 poor environments.  When algae are in CO2 rich environments, however, the genes essentially lay low, as the algae are exposed to enough CO2 for the plant’s growth.

Daniel Kuester, a member of the ISU News Service explains the genes’ roles with a metaphor.  The genes are essentially the accelerator in a car.  When you are driving up a hill, referring to algae in CO2 poor environments, the accelerator is utilized to move the car.  When traveling down a hill, however, the driver does not need the accelerator, although the gas pedal remains available for future hills.  This is what is experienced in carbon-enriched environments, in which the genes are not utilized.

The research conducted at ISU utilizes engineering of algal strains to instruct these genes to function in carbon-enriched environments to produce an excess of biomass.  The excess biomass can be generated as oils at an increased a rate of 50%.  These oils can be extracted for the use of biofuels.

This discovery has the potential to solve a major underlying problem in the algal biofuel movement.  The rate of algae growth has shown to be slowed when the algae is grown in areas of stress (Singh, Nigam, Murphy  14).  This research also supports the idea of growing algae in industrial areas, utilizing the massive CO2 emissions as a source of nutrients.

While this study provides some positive advances in the field of algal biofuel research, there are some rising concerns that must be addressed.

Mainly, what would happen to algae growth if the clean energy movement progresses and energy were harnessed in ways that significantly decreased the amount of CO2 emissions?  Surely this would be considered a great success for environmentally conscious scientists and individuals, but it would cause a complication for the production of algae biofuels?

It is essential that whichever direction the United States chooses to gain energy independence and reduce GHG emissions, the energy source(s) must provide a long-term solution to the energy crisis.  This is important to keep in mind when looking at the potential of algal biofuel incorporation into society’s energy use.

That being said, this research provides hope for skeptics in fear of the difficulties associated with harnessing algal biofuel production.  Surely the delay in the take off of algal biofuels is due to the deficiency of research that has been conducted.  A great deal more advancements in algal research, as in the one at ISU, need to be made in order for us to find a successful way to implement algal fuels in the biofuel market.

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