Having studied the physiology of algae for more than 30 years, Rose Ann Cattolico is convinced the plant life found in oceans and ponds can be a major source of environmentally friendly fuels for everything from cars and lawn mowers to jet airplanes.
She's not the only one. Recently Allied Minds, an investment company that works with universities to commercialize early-stage technology, invested in the University of Washington biology professor's work, forming a startup company called AXI.
"People don't realize how many types of algae there are – from single cells to large kelp – and each one develops differently," Cattolico said. "What we're trying to do is choose the best of the best, the ones that produce the right lipids for a particular type of fuel."
AXI won't be in the business of making fuel. Instead, it will work with biofuel producers to develop strains of algae that produce just the right lipids, or oils, for the fuel that the producer wants to make. The methods will not employ genetic modification, Cattolico said.
"It's not like creating a widget. It's a dynamic process that will change all the time," she said.
Unlike many agriculturally important crops such as corn that produce starch as a byproduct of photosynthesis, some algae make lipids. One type of algae might produce oil appropriate for a motor vehicle. Another might be useful for home heating oil. Yet another might produce lipids just right for powering an airliner across the Pacific Ocean. Some strains could produce oil useful for other products, such as the omega 3 fatty acids that make fish oil dietary supplements so popular.
Algae grow rapidly and do not require the use of productive farmland. Algae also can use various nutritional sources, including wastewater, Cattolico said.
A variety of factors made this an opportune time to form AXI, said Erick Rabins, the company's interim manager and vice president of Allied Minds, based in Quincy, Mass. Escalating costs for oil (from about $27 a barrel to more than $100 in five years), rising demand for alternative fuels, the effects of climate change, and growing concern about using foods such as corn and soybeans as fuel stock are making fuel from algae a much more attractive option.
But that won't necessarily translate into rapid development of algae-based fuels, Rabins said. Entire infrastructures, from specialized growing facilities to processing plants, will have to be created, and that will come only after potential producers see the value and make the investment. He speculated that it could take 10 to 25 years before algae-based biofuel is readily available to the public, though specialty uses could appear sooner.
"The most optimistic assessment that I've heard is that it could be six to eight years before there's something that's useable, but the tools and techniques to make it possible are being created right now," he said.
Details of the agreement between Allied Minds and UW TechTransfer to commercialize Cattolico's synthesis methods were not disclosed. The company was drawn to her work, Rabins said, because she has spent so many years making detailed analyses of many different strains of algae, in essence creating a reference database.
Cattolico began studying algae almost by accident. As a master's degree student she worked with terrestrial plant pollen. But it turned out she was allergic to pollen and her physician advised her to change fields, so for her doctoral work she began studying chlorophyll-containing structures within the cells of algae.
That was in 1973, right at the end of another major societal spasm over fuel shortages and high gas prices. As gasoline became more plentiful again, demands for finding alternative fuel sources grew dimmer and "all of the money for research dried up," Cattolico said.
In the current fuel debate, Cattolico readily points to the merits of algae-based biofuel. But she believes it is only a part of the answer to high fuel prices and replacing current fuels with climate-friendlier alternatives. She would like to see a broad commitment by government and industry to quickly develop the alternate energy sources needed to reduce environmental problems, increase national security and hold down costs.
"What we need is a Manhattan Project for fuel. If we can get a Manhattan Project for fuel, it won't take 25 years," Cattolico said.
For more information, contact Cattolico at (206) 543-9363 or email@example.com, or Rabins at (206) 335-9707 or firstname.lastname@example.org
A high-resolution image can be downloaded at http://uwnews.org/images/newsreleases/2008/August/20080827_pid43455_aid43454_algae_sourceimage.jpg
Vince Stricherz | Newswise Science News
How does the loss of species alter ecosystems?
18.05.2017 | Deutsches Zentrum für integrative Biodiversitätsforschung (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
Excess diesel emissions bring global health & environmental impacts
16.05.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
The world's highest gain high power laser amplifier - by many orders of magnitude - has been developed in research led at the University of Strathclyde.
The researchers demonstrated the feasibility of using plasma to amplify short laser pulses of picojoule-level energy up to 100 millijoules, which is a 'gain'...
Staphylococcus aureus is a feared pathogen (MRSA, multi-resistant S. aureus) due to frequent resistances against many antibiotics, especially in hospital infections. Researchers at the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut have identified immunological processes that prevent a successful immune response directed against the pathogenic agent. The delivery of bacterial proteins with RNA adjuvant or messenger RNA (mRNA) into immune cells allows the re-direction of the immune response towards an active defense against S. aureus. This could be of significant importance for the development of an effective vaccine. PLOS Pathogens has published these research results online on 25 May 2017.
Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) is a bacterium that colonizes by far more than half of the skin and the mucosa of adults, usually without causing infections....
Physicists from the University of Würzburg are capable of generating identical looking single light particles at the push of a button. Two new studies now demonstrate the potential this method holds.
The quantum computer has fuelled the imagination of scientists for decades: It is based on fundamentally different phenomena than a conventional computer....
An international team of physicists has monitored the scattering behaviour of electrons in a non-conducting material in real-time. Their insights could be beneficial for radiotherapy.
We can refer to electrons in non-conducting materials as ‘sluggish’. Typically, they remain fixed in a location, deep inside an atomic composite. It is hence...
Two-dimensional magnetic structures are regarded as a promising material for new types of data storage, since the magnetic properties of individual molecular building blocks can be investigated and modified. For the first time, researchers have now produced a wafer-thin ferrimagnet, in which molecules with different magnetic centers arrange themselves on a gold surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Scientists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
Ferrimagnets are composed of two centers which are magnetized at different strengths and point in opposing directions. Two-dimensional, quasi-flat ferrimagnets...
24.05.2017 | Event News
23.05.2017 | Event News
22.05.2017 | Event News
29.05.2017 | Earth Sciences
29.05.2017 | Life Sciences
29.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy