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UWO research fueling start-up algae venture

August 21, 2013

Matthew Nelson works with algae in the biology department at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Matthew Nelson works with algae in the biology department at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh microbiologist Toivo Kallas, along with research assistant Mathew Nelson, presented their latest findings at the sixth annual Wisconsin Science and Technology Symposium for using blue-green algae and the sun’s energy to turn carbon waste into biojet fuel.

Organized by the WiSys Technology Foundation and UW-Superior, the Symposium supports innovative technologies developed in the UW System which have practical applications in the marketplace.

Kallas has more than 30 years of experience studying photosynthetic electron transfer, energy transduction and gene regulation in microalgae. Over the years, more than 70 undergraduate and 22 graduate students have worked on this research, funded by the National Science Foundation, WiSys Technology Foundation and UW Oshkosh.

“Carbon-neutral bioproducts and biofuels will be imperative for a sustainable economy, global ecology and national security,” Kallas said. “Cyanobacteria can help meet this need because they efficiently capture solar energy and turn atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon polymers.”

The UWO researchers are working with Eric Singsass, of UW-Stevens Point, to genetically engineer the cyanobacteria to increase the amount of isoprene (a precursor to synthetic rubber and aviation fuels) that could be produced from the process. “We are getting some good yields,” Kallas said. “We think it has quite a lot of promise. The basic biology is fun and interesting work, and the practical applications make for a challenging new venture.”

With their success on the project to date, the researchers have applied for a patent through WiSys and have founded a start-up company called Algoma Algal Biotechnology LLC. They are continuing to modify the cyanobacteria in hopes of creating an even more efficient “super strain.”

The next step is to move the research out of the laboratory and into a pilot project with the Environmental Research Innovation Center on the UW Oshkosh campus.

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—Natalie Johnson

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