Baking Soda Boosts Bio Oil From Algae

You can find web pages that reveal 60, 30, 75 — pick an impressive number — of uses for baking soda, that versatile chemical compound more formally known as sodium bicarbonate. But none of them mentions adding it to algae at precisely the right moment in the growth cycle in order to double the amount of oil produced (and in half the time, to boot).

It was researchers from Montana State’s Algal Biofuels Group who recently unlocked this startling secret, which they are now offering for licensing, according to a university press release. “I’m still kind of in shock about it,” said MSU grad student Rob Gardner, who grew algae in beakers for a year and a half, adding different chemicals at different times, in search of a trigger. “It was a lot of trial and error and failure,” he said. “We finally came across the right combination.”

Montana State University algae researchers

image via Montana State University

Bakers use sodium bicarbonate — NaHCO3 — because it reacts with acids (or on its own at high temperatures) to produce carbon dioxide and give their dough a lift. The researchers theorize that something similar might be going on with algae, with the baking soda boosting metabolism, but only if added at just the right moment. In doing so, the researchers found their algae “producing two to three times the oil in half the time of conventional growth models.”

Scientists have been seeking a way to speed the algal-to-oil process in order to make such biofuels more economically viable, and also because the ponds algae grow in can easily be contaminated. Faster growth could mean less chance of the algae going bad prior to harvest.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Amazing!nnIt astounds me the lengths in which scientists go to find such break throughs!