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NSF awards Oregon State team $2M to support work on diatom-based photosynthetic biorefineries
18 September 2012
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded researchers at Oregon State University a $2-million grant to further the development of a diatom-based photosynthetic biorefinery.
Diatoms—ancient marine life forms—could theoretically make biofuel production from algae truly cost-effective because they could simultaneously produce other valuable products such as material for semiconductors, biomedical products and health foods.
This NSF program is intended to support long-range concepts for a sustainable future, but in fact we’re demonstrating much of the science behind these technologies right now. We have shown how diatoms can be used to produce semiconductor materials, chitin fibers for biomedical applications, or the lipids needed to make biofuels. We believe that we can produce all of these products in one facility at the same time and move easily from one product to the other.—Greg Rorrer, OSU professor and head of the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering
Biofuels can be made from algae, scientists have shown, but the fuels are a comparatively low-value product and existing technologies have so far been held back by cost. If this program can help produce products with much higher value at the same time—such as glucosamine, a food product commonly sold as a health food supplement—then the entire process could make more economic sense.
Much of the cost in this approach, in fact, is not the raw materials involved but the facilities needed for production. As part of the work at OSU, researchers plan to develop mathematical models so that various options can be tested and computers used to perfect the technology before actually building it.
The key to all of this is the diatom itself, a natural nanotechnology factory that has been found in the fossil record for more than 100 million years. Diatoms evolved sometime around the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs flourished. A major component of phytoplankton, diatoms have rigid microscopic shell walls made out of silica, and the capability to biosynthesize various compounds of commercial value.
Regular algae don’t make everything that diatoms can make. This is the only organism we know of that can create organized structures at the nano-level and naturally produce such high-value products. With the right components, they will make what you want them to make.—Greg Rorrer
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