LV Times columnist: A future exists in algae for students

To paraphrase a famous line from the movie, “The Graduate,” the future is in algae.

First of all, algae are everywhere on the planet, including on ice and snow and in fresh water and salt water…

If I’m not mistaken, algae are the prime source of oxygen created through photosynthesis, which makes sense since the earth is mostly covered by water.

So, why is algae important, aside from making oxygen? Well, for starters, they have the potential to be a super source for alternative fuels production.

According to information on the U.S. Department of Energy’s website, algae are among the Earth’s most prolific energy generators and ancient algae are the source material for many fossil fuel deposits.

Some algae, under the right circumstances, can accumulate high levels of oils within their cell walls, and these oils, or lipids, can be extracted and converted into biofuels and other bioproducts. Research shows they can produce much more oil than terrestrial plants and that certain strains can yield as much as 60 times more oil than plants like soybeans. And, they do it all while using atmospheric carbon dioxide and giving us oxygen.

The potential is great enough that the keynote speaker at the upcoming Algae Biomass Summit in San Diego in September will be the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment. Needless to say, the military is extremely interested in algae as a source of alternative fuels for their military equipment, including vehicles, ships, and aircraft.

Of what practical importance is this to you? Well, if you are a high school or college student with a strong interest in biology, you may be able to earn yourself a free ticket to your post graduate studies paid for by either the Department of Energy or Department of Defense.

I will use one of my sons as an example of the potential.

David did really well at Michigan Tech in materials engineering and science and top universities head-hunted him and convinced him to pursue his post-graduate studies at Cornell. He was actually offered similar opportunities at a large number of universities.

Practically speaking, a university has professors who are paid by the DOE and DOD for specific research and these professors will head hunt undergraduate programs for promising students to do their research under their leadership. For David, that meant he was able to conduct graduate studies to the doctoral level at no personal cost and was paid a stipend good enough to live on for quite a few years at Cornell.

I suspect there are similar opportunities waiting for top-level biology students today. The trick is to have such an interest in the career field that you stand out by your accomplishments so you are visible to those professors with large contracts from government or industrial agencies and corporations.

You do have to be flexible within your career. For example, David was interested in ceramics and plastics, but industry needed research in materials science in computer-related issues.

Today, he works for Intel in Portland. Similarly, as a biology student, you may have to adapt to what industry or government is willing to pay for if you expect to get a free ride to your doctorate.

The point is that there is huge potential in something like algae and I highly recommend you check out the DOE website and search for algae biomass research.

Just one area of interest is in using carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired generating plants to feed algae farms to produce alternative fuels. There are hundreds of areas of interest with huge economic potential for algae research.


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