The pond scum that could fuel jet planes

[Japan] Japan may be synonymous with mega high-tech projects from bullet trains to nuclear domes, but there are equally innovative developments on the other, micro, end of the size scale. In a laboratory on the leafy campus of the venerable University of Tokyo, a group of scientists is trying to figure out how to revolutionize the big three needs of human life: food, fuel and pharmaceuticals. For answers, they are looking to one of the tiniest life forms: Euglena, a type of microalgae found in fresh and salty water.

Euglena are single-cell organisms that behave in both a plant and animal-like manner, in that they gain nutrition by photosynthesis as well as by eating food from external sources. They are microscopic, only about 0.05 mm in length (a single strand of human hair is wider at 0.07 mm).

Euglena, a single-celled microscopic algae, known as Midorimushi in Japanese, is cultivated in a reactor at the Euglena Co. laboratory in the University of Tokyo, in Tokyo, Japan, in this May 8, 2013 photo. Photo Credit: Getty Images

So just how is this miniscule variety of pond scum going to fuel jet planes, cure cancer or feed the planet? The answer lies in the by-products that euglena create while “eating”. During photosynthesis, they produce certain oils or lipids that can be used as nutritional supplements and also as a potent biofuel.

The oil from Euglena is chemically similar to kerosene but is lighter than other algae-derived oil and thus more suited for production of jet fuels. Moreover, under nitrogen-deficient conditions Euglena also produce paramylon, a carbohydrate that is similar to starch. Paramylon is not only a promising feedstock for biodiesel and aviation biofuel, but there is research suggesting that it helps to suppress colon cancer and protects from liver damage.

The man leading the euglena team is Keisuke Goda. Professor Goda is known for having developed the world’s fastest camera, capable of filming tiny processes that happen not only in less than the blink of an eye, but in less than a millisecond (it takes between 300-400 milliseconds to blink). His camera can take a mind-boggling 5 trillion frames per second, which allows for a range of breakthrough scientific research from being able to see how atoms actually behave in nuclear fission reactions, to spotting cancer cells rushing through the bloodstream before they spread to other organs.

Rewriting genetic code

But the problem occupying the Goda laboratory at present is that of the heterogeneity of Euglena. Not all Euglena cells are equal when it comes to their capacity to produce lipids. What Professor Goda is attempting is to use his camera to screen a huge number of Euglena cells in order to identify the genetic code of super-Euglena or those algae that produce up to 10 times more lipids than the norm. Once he is able to understand the DNA of these mighty mites, he plans to rewrite the genetic code of other average lipid-producing Euglena cells, thus creating a mutant strain that would consistently deliver large quantities of the oils that could be used to fly planes.

“Our method paves the way for rapid, cost-effective, energy-efficient production of biofuel,” Professor Goda says. He explains that at the moment algae-based biofuels are 10 times more expensive than petroleum. But, if his team is able to execute a 10-fold improvement in the efficiency of euglena lipid production, it would bring the cost down an equivalent number of times.

Professor Goda is currently collaborating with a company listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, eponymously called Euglena, that has plans to produce 33,000 gallons of jet fuel a year. Their dream is to use the algae to power a trip to Mars and even feed the astronauts along the way. While the practicality of any such project is debatable, the tiny Euglena are undoubtedly fuelling outsized dreams.


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