OSU gets $2M to study tiny marine algae with big biofuel potential
By Christina Williams
Sustainable Business Oregon editor
Diatoms, a major component of phytoplankton, evolved sometime around the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs flourished. Their rigid microscopic shell walls are made out of silica, giving them the capability to biosynthesize various compounds of commercial value.
Scientists at Oregon State University landed a $2 million grant to study a tiny marine life form with the multitasking potential to make cost-effective, algae-based biofuel, along with semiconductors, biomedical products and health food.
The National Science Federation awarded the four-year grant to study the concept of "photosynthetic biorefinery" which puts the microscopic algae, called diatoms, to work. The grant, announced Monday, is through a program to support long-range concepts for a sustainable future.
"We have shown how diatoms can be used to produce semiconductor materials, chitin fibers for biomedical applications, or the lipids needed to make biofuels," said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor and head of the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. "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."
Researchers have long pursued the notion of making biofuels from algae, but no existing technologies have been able to do so in a cost-effective way. The diatoms have the potential to not only make biofuel but also produce higher-value products at the same time — like glucosamine, a health food supplement — making the process pencil out.
OSU scientists will develop math-based models to test the technology before actually building it.
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