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  • Megan Stumpf

Growing Interest in Algae as a Carbon Capture and Biofuel Solution

Phytoplankton, or microscopic marine algae, are estimated to generate up to half of all oxygen production on Earth and are responsible for half of all global carbon fixation. These organisms have long-held scientists’ interest due to their massive potential to photosynthesize atmospheric carbon into valuable biomass. With mounting pressure to stave off the worst effects of climate change, the interest is only growing.

Like other plants, phytoplankton’s power stems from the ability to utilize sunlight for nutrients, capturing and accumulating carbon in the process. However, one attractive feature that makes marine algae especially promising is its ability to transport bicarbonate in pond water as a carbon dioxide source to competitively inhibit the use of oxygen by photorespiration.

While many other plants photosynthesize gaseous carbon dioxide on land, phytoplankton has a few advantages regarding biomass production over corn and other plant life. For example, aqueous algae will not compete for land crops and can produce two to ten times more biomass over the same area. Algal yields can also be harvested year-round versus seasonally with traditional terrestrial crops.

Ideally, algal ponds could be paired at locations of significant industrial CO2 emissions. Power plant flue gases injected into algal ponds appear to improve biomass yield by roughly 30% compared to injection of pure CO2. While this potential implementation is promising, land availability for algal ponds and climate requirements vary globally at power plants. Luckily, photobioreactor algae cultivation systems provide an alternative method for cultivating algae vertically instead of horizontally via ponds, reducing large power plant facilities' overall land area demands.

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Consumer businesses are also harnessing algal carbon capture potential. Sustainable garment maker, Vollebak has a black algae t-shirt, retailing for $110, offering a new twist on the classic black tee. Carbon black, an environmentally toxic and ubiquitous substance typically used in inks, plastics and rubber, is also used in t-shirts. Vollebak, in partnership with biomaterials startup Living Ink, has engineered a way to “print” black algae on the surface of a standard tee instead of using the traditional, harmful pigment. The company states that its biodegradable t-shirt also locks in CO2 captured during the algae’s lifespan for 100 years rather than producing carbon emissions.

Efforts to harness algae to reduce atmospheric carbon are gaining steam. In a move to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, the U.S. Department of Energy announced earlier this month that new funding is available for research and development on using algae for energy and manufacturing. The DOE will distribute the award of nearly $34 million across 11 projects to further research on algae and municipal solid waste as sources of biofuels, biopower and bioproducts.

The projects include advancing algal productivity, integrating direct air capture with algae carbon biocatalysis, and supporting the development of environmental monitoring technologies to enhance large-scale microalgae cultivation, stability and productivity. The University of California San Diego, Colorado State University, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Arizona State University, University of Toledo and Global Algae Innovations Inc. are among the institutions receiving algal research funding.


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