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Technology

Marine alga a promising biofuel source – U.C. San Diego

A new, more sustainable source of biofuel has opened up with the discovery that marine algae – grown in salt water – are capable of yielding petroleum-like compounds.

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Scientists have been on to algae’s ability to be a fuel feedstock for around 40 years now, but most of the work focused on freshwater species of algae. A team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego chose to focus on a species of marine algae known as the Dunaliella tertiolecta.

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“We know how to grow them [freshwater algae], manipulate them genetically, express recombinant proteins – all of the things required to make biofuels viable. It was always assumed that we could do the same thing in marine species, but there was always some debate in the community as to whether that could really be done,” said Stephen Mayfield, professor of biology at the university and head of the research.

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Dunaliella tertiolecta was targeted by the study because of its high oil content and ability to grow rapidly under a wide range of salinity and acidic conditions. To demonstrate that it could be used in commercial biofuel production, the team introduced five genes into the alga that produced five different enzymes that can be used in an industrial setting.

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“What our research shows is that we can achieve in marine species exactly what we’ve already done in freshwater species,” said Mr. Mayfield.

This development is of interest to the biofuel sector because one of the most attractive aspects of algae as a biofuel source is because growing algae does not require land to be diverted for agriculture or food production.

Mr. Mayfield estimated that there are about 10 million acres of land in the United States alone that are no longer suitable for agriculture but could be used to cultivate algae.

Using marine algae as a biofuel crop will expand the kinds of environments in which algae can be grown even more. Marine algae can tolerate salty environments which can kill fresh water algae, thus they can be cultivated in the ocean, brackish water or even on land with high salt content.

According to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, algal fuels grown in saline water from existing aquifers would be able to provide up to twice the goal for advanced biofuels set under the Energy Independence and Security Act – around 40 billion gallons.

The research was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the State of California Energy Commission. – EcoSeed Staff



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