CORVALLIS, Ore. Diatoms, tiny marine life forms that have been around since the dinosaurs, could finally make biofuel production from algae truly cost-effective because they can simultaneously produce other valuable products such as semiconductors, biomedical products and even health foods.
Engineers at Oregon State University concede that such technology is pushing the envelope a bit. But it's not science fiction many of the needed advances have already been made, and the National Science Foundation just provided a four-year, $2 million grant to help make it a working reality.
In theory, and possibly soon in practice, these amazing microscopic algae will be able to take some of the cheapest, most abundant materials on Earth - like silicon and nitrates - and add nothing much more than sunshine, almost any type of water, and carbon dioxide to produce a steady stream of affordable products.
The concept is called a "photosynthetic biorefinery." Sand, fertilizer, a little sun and saltwater, in other words, might some day power the world's automobiles and provide materials for electronics, with the help of a tiny, single-celled microstructure that already helps form the basis for much of the marine food chain and cycles carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere.
"This NSF program is intended to support long-range concepts for a sustainable future, but in fact we're demonstrating much of the science behind these technologies right now," said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor and head of the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. Rorrer has studied the remarkable power of diatoms for more than a decade.
"We have shown how diatoms can be used to produce semiconductor materials, chitin fibers for biomedical applications, or the lipids needed to make biofuels," he said. "We believe that we can produce all of these products in one facility at the same time and move easily from one product to the other."
|Contact: Greg Rorrer|
Oregon State University