Algae could produce renewable fuels

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ARGONNE, Ill. — As gas prices continue to soar to record highs, motorists are crying out for an alternative that won’t cramp their pocketbooks.

Scientists at U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory say the next generation of renewable fuels could come from an unexpected place: algae.

Hydrogen gas

Researchers are working to chemically manipulate algae for production of the next generation of renewable fuels — hydrogen gas.
Senior chemist David Tiede says there is an advantage in looking at the production of hydrogen by photosynthesis: It’s more efficient than ethanol being produced from corn.

Nature at work

Some varieties of algae, a kind of unicellular plant, contain an enzyme called hydrogenase that can create small amounts of hydrogen gas.

Tiede said many believe this is used by nature as a way to get rid of excess reducing equivalents that are produced under high light conditions, but there is little benefit to the plant. Tiede and his group are trying to find a way to take the part of the enzyme that creates the gas and introduce it into the photosynthesis process.

The result would be a large amount of hydrogen gas, possibly on par with the amount of oxygen created.

“Biology can do it, but it’s making it do it at 5-10 percent yield — that’s the problem,” Tiede said.

So researchers are trying to take that catalyst out of hydrogenase and put into the photosynthetic protein framework.

Advantages

Algae can be grown in a closed system almost anywhere, including deserts or even rooftops, and there is no competition for food or fertile soil. Algae is also easier to harvest because it has no roots or fruit and grows dispersed in water.

“If you have terrestrial plants like corn, you are restricted to where you could grow them,” Tiede said.

Algae provides an alternative, which can be grown in a closed photobioreactor that you could move any place.

Lots to do

Tiede admitted the research is its beginning phases, but he is confident in his team and their research goals. The next step is to create a way to attach the catalytic enzyme to the molecule.

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