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Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability

Department of Physics


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.

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