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NSF Gives $2mil to OSU for Diatom Study

September 23, 2012


The National Science Foundation has awarded a four-year, $2 million grant to Engineers at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, OR, to study if diatoms can make biofuel production from algae truly cost-effective by simultaneously producing other valuable products such as semiconductors, biomedical products and even health foods.

Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor and head of the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering has studied the remarkable power of diatoms for more than a decade. “We have shown how diatoms can be used to produce semiconductor materials, chitin fibers for biomedical applications, or the lipids needed to make biofuels,” he said. “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. The concept is called a ‘photosynthetic biorefinery.’

“This NSF program is intended to support long-range concepts for a sustainable future, but in fact we’re demonstrating much of the science behind these technologies right now,” he adds.

Biofuels are a comparatively low-value product, and existing technologies have so far been held back by cost. This program, according to the researchers, may help produce products with much higher value at the same time – like glucosamine, a food product commonly sold as a health food supplement – giving the entire process more economic sense.

Much of the cost in this approach, researchers say, is not the raw materials involved but the facilities needed for production. As part of the work at OSU, they plan to develop mathematical models so that various options can be tested and computers used to perfect the technology before actually building it.

The OSU scientists point out that the key to all of this is the diatom itself, a natural nanotechnology factory that has been found in the fossil record for more than 100 million years. Diatoms evolved sometime around the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs flourished. A major component of phytoplankton, diatoms have rigid microscopic shell walls made out of silica, and the capability to biosynthesize various compounds of commercial value.

“Regular algae don’t make everything that diatoms can make,” Rorrer said. “This is the only organism we know of that can create organized structures at the nano-level and naturally produce such high-value products. With the right components, they will make what you want them to make.”

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