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A New Biofuel System

September 27, 2018


Michigan State University scientists have found a solution to enhance oil production and harvest using what many consider sea sludge.

The new proof of concept, published in Biotechnology for Biofuels, is a biofuel production platform that uses two species of marine algae and soil fungi. It lowers cultivation and harvesting costs and increases productivity, factors that currently hold back biofuels from being widely adopted.

The species of alga, Nannochloropsis oceanica, and fungus, Mortierella elongata, both produce oils that can be harvested for human use. When scientists place the two organisms in the same environment, the tiny algae attach to the fungi to form big masses that are visible to the naked eye. This aggregation method is called bio-flocculation.

When harvested together, the organisms yield more oil than if they were cultivated and harvested each on their own. “We used natural organisms with high affinity for each other,” said Zhi-Yan (Rock) Du, the study co-author and research associate for the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “The algae are very productive, and the fungus we use is neither toxic to us nor edible. It’s a very common soil fungus that can be found in your back yard.”

The new approach feeds the algae with ammonium, one source of nitrogen that algae can quickly use for growth. However, the ammonium supply is controlled so the algae produce the maximum cell density and automatically enter nitrogen starvation. The closely monitored nitrogen diet can increase oil production and lower costs.

The study was conducted in the labs of Christoph Benning and Gregory Bonito.

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