UD researcher works Delaware algal strain
February 23, 2016 — by Karen B. Roberts
t the University of Delaware (UD), associate scientist Jennifer Stewart is working to grow algae on power plant smokestack emissions to neutralize their nitric oxide and carbon dioxide, and create sustainable algae-based biofuels. “What if we could capture or redirect these emissions for a usable purpose?” asks Dr. Stewart, an associate scientist in UD’s School of Marine Science and Policy, housed in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.
As a doctoral student at UD working with biochemist Kathryn Coyne, Stewart studied Heterosigma akashiwo, a species of algae that thrives in Delaware waterways and worldwide. Stewart discovered that H. akashiwo contains a special enzyme with the unique ability to convert nitric oxide gas into a form of nitrogen it can use for food. So instead of dying in the presence of toxic emissions, H. akashiwo thrives.
Once harvested, the golden-brown colored algae can be transformed into algae-based biofuels, bioplastics and even algae-based, omega-3 supplements.
Dr. Stewart’s research has led to collaborations with the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) at Arizona State University and the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, among others, and garnered funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency STAR Program, Delaware Sea Grant, the Department of Energy, and other industry partners.
Dr. Stewart is now reviewing every step in the cultivation process – culturing the algae in the laboratory, determining what concentrations of carbon dioxide produce the highest algae growth, and ultimately, understanding the best way to harvest the algae for the greatest yield. It is work that builds on previous trials she conducted with colleagues at AzCATI.
Last summer she installed a bioreactor outside of Sharp Laboratory on UD’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, Delaware, to test how much algae can be grown and harvested over a given period of time. She believes that Delaware is a prime place to conduct this research because while the Mid-Atlantic region has its own sources of pollution, natural wind patterns across the country bring pollution there from states to the north and northwest, too.
Her immediate efforts are on addressing challenges in cost and scalability in hopes of reducing costs of algae farming to be competitive with the price of gasoline. Stewart believes that algae has a huge role to play in alternative fuels and can easily envision a large portion of U.S. transportation fuels being replaced by algal biofuels in the foreseeable future, though she concedes that the journey is not without its challenges. “We know we can make algal biofuels, but can we do it economically?” she says. “That is the more important question.”