[USA] The banks of the Delaware River, long home to oil refineries, could someday see a green revolution thanks to the work of a local researcher.
That is green as in algae, which is used to make biofuels and plastic.
Jennifer Stewart, a researcher at the University of Delaware, has been perfecting a way to feed algae greenhouse gases, boosting the plant’s growth while preventing pollution.
It is all thanks to an enzyme Stewart discovered while researching harmful algal blooms a few years ago. The enzyme was found in Heterosigma akashiwo, a type of algae.
The entrepreneurial-minded Stewart, a PhD in Marine Bioscience who is currently pursuing her masters in business, then sought to find a way to use that enzyme in the commercial field.
For the past month, Stewart has set up a lab to mimic real-world scenarios on the Lewes campus to find out if her work is viable. If it is, algae farms could set up shop a few miles away from coal or gas-powered electricity plants and oil refineries and have emissions piped straight to the algae, instead of into the atmosphere.
While most algaes can use the carbon dioxide put out by refineries, another pollutant, nitric oxide, usually kills algae.
But that’s not the case with Heterosigma akashiwo. Instead, the nitric oxide is used as a nutrient allowing the algae to grow directly off the gas coming from the refineries.
“Our algae will actually take that nitric oxide and convert it into a nitrate-based fertilizer,” Stewart said.
Just as different types of corn serve different functions, different types of algae are valued for certain reasons.
Stewart’s algae is valuable for its ability to remove greenhouse gases, becoming a fertilizer that can be fed to the kind of algae used to make fuel and plastic.
Along with the University of Kentucky, Stewart has developed a method in which her algae goes into a bioreactor where it constantly moves, exposed to sunlight, and feeds off pollutants that are piped directly from the source, removing the nitric oxide from the pollution stream.
The result is a thick fertilizer that other algae farmers can use.
“You need plant food to grow corn. You need fertilizers to grow algae, too, and they’re very expensive,” Stewart said. “We would be supplying (algae farmers) with a fertilizer that we transformed out of a toxic gas.”
Preventing pollution from nitric oxide is definitely one positive. Nitric oxide was the cause of acid rain in the 1980s, Stewart said, and still is a major problem for water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
Another positive is the enzyme’s potential to cut costs in the biofuel industry, which is trying to get its products below the $3-a-gallon threshold. Pollution from power plants is low-cost algae food.
“If you use sources of emissions you can cut your operating costs in half,” Stewart said.
All the steps are currently in place to create fuel from algae, Stewart said, but right now that fuel would cost between $5 and $8. For it to be viable, it needs to be cheaper.
In addition to creating fertilizer, Stewart is also looking into modifying commercially viable algaes with the enzyme, so they could feed directly off the pollution source.
She has been working on the project for about two years, she said, and has funding for an additional two years.
Photo: (Photo: Staff Photo by Rachael Pacella)
View original article at: In Delaware, pollution goes green with research