Microbes as Renewable Energy Systems
A new facet of renewable energy research at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) began in 2014 by focusing on the interface between microbiology and chemical engineering to harness naturally evolved microbial processes to convert sunlight into useful products. Researchers are investigating the growth characteristics of algae in hopes that we can learn unique metabolic functions that can be exploited for commercial biofuel and specialty bioproducts production. This unique research focus is done in partnership with the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, WCROC, and the USDA-ARS Soils Lab facility in Morris, MN.
Our research looks at the ways microbes have adapted in different environments, and how those adaptations can be used in different situations. For example, microbes can be used to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen into a renewable fuel sources.
Millions of years ago, prehistoric zooplankton and algae settled to the sea (or lake) bottom in large quantities and mixed with mud. Over geological time, this mixture was buried under multiple heavy layers of sediment. The heat and pressure of the earth chemically converted the organic matter into petroleum; the modern day crude oil that we drill from the earth is essentially fossilized zooplankton and algae, which brings an increased interest to algae as a potential renewable fuel source.
Algae are phototrophic microorganisms that convert sunlight, as a renewable energy source, into biomass that can be further processed into biofuels such as ethanol. Or, we can take fatty algae, many strains accumulate a lot of fat, and convert that fat to biodiesel. At the WCROC, we are investigating optimal ways of cultivating algae for future agricultural applications.
One of our primary foci, is how to produce fatty algae at useful scale in rural Minnesota. This includes investigation on cold weather cultivation, crop protection, and research on shunting carbon, which was fixed from carbon dioxide, into fat storage within the algal cells, all with the goal of improving agricultural sustainability.
Algae growth uses a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus. Recycling nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater can reduce some of the input costs of culturing algae, all while "cleaning" wastewater.
Algae converts sunlight into biomass much faster than land plants; some algae can double their biomass in just a few hours. This makes algae nature's most efficient primary producers, and they account for more than 50 percent of global carbon fixation.
Algae-based products can be found just about anywhere; from cosmetics to nutrients to pigments. And because algae grow so fast, there is interest in using these efficient photosynthetic organisms to produce biofuels, specialty chemicals, food, and feed. One approach is to use algal oil-extracted biomass as a feed source for animals.
Rob Gardner, Assistant Professor