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Optimisation of algae growth for biofuels

Dr Pietro Cicuta (Biological and Soft Systems) and Prof Alison Smith (Department of Plant Science)

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Microalgae are simple photosynthetic eukaryotes, which are responsible for approximately half of Earth’s fixation of atmospheric carbon. At present microalgae are mainly grown for the production of high-value products. However, when grown under certain specific conditions, such as nutrient limitation, some species can also produce lipids, and could be used as a feedstock for the production of biodiesel. Biofuels, such as biodiesel from microalgae, have the potential to provide a low-carbon alternative to fossil-derived transport fuel, because growth of the feedstock uses photosynthesis to fix atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is then released on combustion.

As a result, significant attention has recently been paid to maximising the production of lipids and other high-value chemicals from microalgae by optimising conditions of growth, determining the most appropriate algal species, and developing photobioreactors.  For this to be effective, we need to have a robust understanding of factors that limit algal growth both for an individual cell, and at scale.

This is a project in collaboration between P. Cicuta (Physics) and A. Smith (Plant Sciences).  In A. Smith’s lab it has been shown that over half of all microalgal species require the organic micronutrient vitamin B12, and they can get this by living in symbiosis with heterotrophic bacteria [1].  Understanding fully this interaction requires single molecule measurements. In this 6-month pump-priming project, we will design a continuous growth micro-chemostat for algae culture in which to screen growth rates and interactions with beneficial symbiotic species.

Project Completed end of August 2012

The pump priming has enabled various elements of the project to make progress (a) it has funded the key people and hardware to set up the imaging system to monitor algae growth; (b) initial designs have been made of the microfluidic chip, although this does not work, further revisions should deliver the desired system; and (c) experiments to understand important aspects of the unicellular algae growth have been performed, the results of which are being written up.

The collaboration between Dr Pietro Cicuta and Professor Alison Smith is set to continue: a Physics Part III project student will work on the microfluidic system; and aim to recruit a PhD student to start in October 2013.

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