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Creating edible algae for space travel

October 8, 2015
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

Ben Pernu (left), graduate student in chemical engineering, and Tyler Johannes, professor of chemical engineering, check on the growth of an algae culture for a University of Tulsa project to make algae suitable for consumption in space. Credit: Stephen Pingry / Tulsa World

Ben Pernu (left), graduate student in chemical engineering, and Tyler Johannes, professor of chemical engineering, check on the growth of an algae culture for a University of Tulsa project to make algae suitable for consumption in space. Credit: Stephen Pingry / Tulsa World

Robert Evatt writes in TulsaWorld.com about a vast array of extremely complex technical hurdles in flying astronauts all the way to Mars, not the least of which being “what will the astronauts eat?” Parameswar Harikumar, an associate professor at the University of Tulsa’s (TU) Department of Physics and Engineering Physics, said the eight- to 10-month flight time in each direction means the crew will need a large amount of food, and weight can become a cost issue. “It’s an estimated $10,000 per pound of material for a trip to Mars,” he said.

That’s why a group of professors and students from TU have embarked on their own three-year mission to develop a system to help astronauts grow their own food with algae. TU’s project is sponsored by a $750,000 grant from NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and, when finished, will be sent up in space on an unmanned satellite to see how well it works.

Daniel Crunkleton, associate professor of chemical engineering and director of TU’s Institute of Alternative Energy, said the project decided to focus on algae due to their previous work with the simple, typically microscopic plant life. “We had been working with algae for fuel, so we started to look at it for food,” he said.

The project will focus on improving the growth rate of algae to ensure astronauts have a sufficient amount to eat. But rather than attempt to alter the algae, the project will strive to give algae an optimal growth environment.

“As plants, algae need sunlight to grow,” said Dr. Crunkleton. “But sunlight produces a wide range of wavelengths, and algae only respond to a relatively narrow range of wavelengths.”

The researchers want to find a way to concentrate sunlight into that narrow range of wavelengths for the algae. Ken Roberts, an associate professor in chemical engineering, said researchers plan to accomplish this by developing a specific type of nanoparticle coating that will be applied over high-transmission solar glass that doesn’t absorb much energy. “The algae will be sandwiched between these panes of glass, and the light from the sun will pass through the coating,” he said. “We’re hoping to achieve a 10 percent to 20 percent improvement in the algae growth rate.”

The algae would most likely be used to supplement other food sources or to help feed other food sources like fish, said Dr. Harikumar. “If you’re on a very long flight, you wouldn’t want to eat algae all the time.”

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