UB Lab Improving Algae Cultivation for Affordable Biofuels

 Seagriculture EU 2024
Algae Cultivation for Affordable Biofuels

Inside Ian Bradley’s lab researchers are finding innovative ways to improve algae cultivation for biofuels. Photo: Douglas Levere

by Peter Murphy

Harvesting biofuel from algae cultivation is effective, but not yet practical.

A University of Buffalo-led research project — funded by a $2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant — is addressing this problem using polyculture farming, artificial intelligence, microscopy, and other techniques.

“The algal cultures are always growing. When the system gets contaminated, the algae get completely wiped out,” says the grant’s principal investigator Ian Bradley, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. “You miss growing biomass for a few weeks or a few months and lose between 30-50% of the product.”

Tracking changes in algal DNA 

Many biomass harvesters wait until an infiltration from pests occurs and add chemicals or use other methods to remedy the infection. Bradley’s team will examine environmental conditions like temperature, sunlight and wastewater treatment, and track changes in the algae’s metagenomes and transcriptomes — DNA and RNA — before and after the organisms are infected.

Collaborators at the Georgia Institute of Technology will monitor these organisms using microscopy and provide updates about algae and pests in real time. They will also use artificial intelligence and deep learning to analyze data and attempt to develop predictive correlations between algal responses and environmental conditions.

“We want to make algae a viable producer for biofuel applications. Right now, it’s expensive and not consistent,” Bradley says. “Our goal is to predict the infections before they occur.”

Viable production 

In addition to monitoring and understanding factors that lead to infection in algal cultures, Bradley and team will use polyculture farming — growing more than one crop species in the same space — to protect biomass production. Polyculture farming mimics natural ecosystems and can increase crop diversity, enhance productivity, and help protect against common pests.

“Pure cultures, or monocultures — made up of the same types of algae — are the most common for biomass production. When a fungus comes into a monoculture, it completely wipes it out and you get culture crash,” Bradley explains. “We grow polycultures to make the process more sustainable. If fungus attacks and wipes out one type of algae, there are others to continue the process.”

Using polycultures also increases productivity because it prevents a complete restart of the biomass production process. Bradley believes using polycultures instead of monocultures could double productivity. “We’re in phase one of this project,” he says. “Phase two is to progress the state of this technology and then scale it up for implementation.”

Additional collaborators on this project include researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Montana-based Clearas Water Recovery Inc.

Source: UBNow

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