Testing device 'finds optimal growth conditions for oil algae'
Oil made from algae could reach near-commercial-scale production in four years thanks to a new testing device, researchers have claimed.
A team from Texas A&M University in the US has developed technology that enables the researchers to trial hundreds of thousands of different growth conditions at once to see which conditions are the best for producing large amounts of algae that give a high oil yield.
The researchers, funded by a $2m (£1.2m) National Science Foundation grant, are also hoping to genetically engineer the best algae for oil production by finding the best traits from different species to combine.
The new device, invented by lead researcher Dr Arum Han, uses microfluidic or ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technology that enables hundreds of thousands of tiny samples to be processed and tested in individual microscopic wells on a structure the size of a credit card.
‘In that little microfluidic device, we can screen hundreds to thousands of different growth conditions at once and complete in a week’s time what in a normal lab atmosphere would take probably a year to screen,’ said researcher Dr Tim Devarenne in a statement.
‘So essentially we can miniaturise everything and screen high volumes of algae to find optimal growth conditions to make the best amount of oil.
He added: ‘These little wells can each hold an individual alga cell, and we can treat each well differently in terms of media compositions or light amounts, for example. So we can see how different parameters affect growth rate, oil production and biomass accumulation.’
The team believes that with the condition screening and genetic engineering of the alga Botryococcus braunii, near-commercial-scale production of fuel-grade algae oil could be possible within four years.
‘We’re interested in taking the genetic information out of the slow-growing alga — the genetic information for producing the hydrocarbons — and transferring that into a faster-growing alga. Then maybe we can more economically produce these oils,’ said Devarenne.
‘If we can produce an alga that produces high amounts of oil and grows fast, an industry partner could grow large amounts of it, extract the oil, convert that oil into gasoline or diesel fuel and sell it just like at a normal gasoline pump.’