Biofuels produced from algae made their high-altitude debut last month as jet fuel for domestic flights. This is exciting stuff for the biofuels industry because it demonstrates the viability of algae as a biofuel feedstock. But it also highlights the need for algal biofuel producers to increase production and lower costs. A recent laboratory breakthrough by researchers at Iowa State University could make this possible. The team has developed a method to increase the amount of biomass produced by algae by 50 to 80 percent.
According to lead researcher Martin Spalding, professor in the Department of Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology, the two genes in algae (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) responsible for capturing carbon dioxide in the air naturally shut down once the algae is getting enough carbon dioxide to keep it alive and thriving. By “expressing” or keeping these genes functioning in carbon dioxide-rich environments, Spalding and his team were able to force the algae to continue performing photosynthesis. The result was an 80 percent increase in the production of biomass in the form of starch. By engineering the algae to make oil instead of starch (using existing mutated genes), the researchers observed a 50 percent increase in oil biomass.
“Somehow these two genes are working together to increase the amount of carbon dioxide that’s converted through photosynthesis into biomass by the algae under conditions where you would expect there would already be enough carbon dioxide,” Spalding said. “There is no doubt in my mind that this brings us closer” to affordable, domestic biofuel.
Spalding’s patent-pending technology is available for licensing from the Iowa State University Research Foundation. The research was funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.