Researchers concerned with global environmental issues have sought to create a greener planet by inventing a fully automated system that is capable of growing algae year-round. Algae are an incredibly diverse group of photosynthesizing organisms which scientists have identified as having great potential for cleaning up industrial waste, generating biofuels, and reducing industry’s carbon foot-print. The algae industry has hitherto faced difficulties with being able to grow their green organisms year-round, but the new system invented by scientists from the University of Dayton Research Institute have potentially just removed that obstacle.
An alga (plural form “algae”) can be any of a huge number of primitive, photosynthesizing organisms. Algae may be single celled or multicellular. The most recognizable form of algae are the green algae, which are thought to have evolved around 500 million years ago. However there are also red algae (which include many types of seaweeds), brown algae (including kelps and the beautifully intricate diatoms), and golden algae (which is best known for killing fish). It is not clear how exactly all these organisms are related to each other in terms of the phylogenetic (evolutionary) history, so the word “algae” had become a sort of catch-all phrase for these primitive photosynthesizers.
Despite a questionable family history, algae have been identified as having incredible potential for helping to alleviate some of the world’s greatest environmental problems. To begin, like with any photosynthesizing organism, algae require carbon dioxide to survive—just like how humans need oxygen. Therefore, similar to planting trees or geo-sequestration, growing algae is a way to deal with unwanted carbon dioxide. Furthermore, algae can also absorb pollution and fertilizer run-off which contain the necessary nitrogen and phosphorous that they need to grow. The algae can then be harvested and used as an alternative to industrial fertilizers. Finally, algae produce oil products which can be used as biofuel. These oil products are produced in abundance—as much as 70 percent of an alga’s body mass.
With so many potential uses, there is considerable interest in growing algae on an industrial scale. However algae are very sensitive organisms that are particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in weather and temperature. Regions in the northern hemisphere in particular face challenges with growing algae because of the changing seasons, shorter daylight hours, and overall colder climate. But these challenges may have just been overcome thanks to an invention that was recently made by scientists at the University of Dayton Research Institute in Ohio.
The Ohio researchers have invented an economical, efficient, and completely automated system capable of growing algae year-round. To do this, they scaled up an indoor growing system and engineered it to insulate the growing algae from the outside world despite seasonal changes. With this system, algal yields are already meeting the target production goals established by the Department of Energy.
With the logistical limiting factors removed, it is hoped that algae can be grown year-round, both for further research purposes and creating a greener plant by offering sustainable solutions to modern industry. The unit has been deemed successful and dependable enough that developers are seeking to begin the commercialization process of bringing this futuristic technology into mainstream use.
By Sarah Takushi