October 6, 2010 | By Jessica Naudziunas
Algae grows all over Missouri, in ponds as scum, in forgotten backyard pools, and in repurposed aquarium tanks in university research labs. Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., is growing algae on purpose in old fish tanks as it researches the viability of using algae as a fuel source. Algae is not a plant, but it can produce oil just like soybeans or olives do. The plan is to find a way to extract the oil without spending a ton of money or time, and then use the oil as a fuel source for cars and other equipment.
Algae research reasons algae can be huge for the energy industry. It can produce 100 times more oil than soybeans and doesn’t have a direct competing food use. More people want to eat soybeans than algae. As with any fuel, it has to be somewhat sustainable and cheap to produce. Right now, algae research in Missouri and the rest of the country is stuck waiting for a few breakthroughs. The first hurdle was reached: identify which algal strains grow best in Missouri climates.
Now, researchers have to figure out practical and affordable algae applications. At Lincoln, there is a small team of microbiologists and undergraduate students working in a space on campus that was once a biology department greenhouse. If you didn’t know the purpose of the current project, it would look like the professor who now occupies this three room lab has a serious green obsession. Algae is everywhere in every form imaginable: freeze-dried, on petri dishes, frozen, comingling with pumped-in CO2 in fish tanks, and bubbling outside in massive vats fit for the opening scene of Macbeth.
Keesoo Lee is the scientist behind the algae research here. She’s a no-nonsense sort of woman, and she really digs algae. She says she gets antsy when she isn’t working on a project without a direct solution, so this algae-human relationship is sort of perfect. A few years ago, her husband, a fellow scientist at Missouri University of Science and Technology, urged Lee to use her expertise in microbiology to explore algae-to-fuel production. She was hired at Lincoln to be a teaching professor, and had no idea she could also do research with her undergrad students. On a sort of whim, she put together a makeshift research lab, using funding from her department to begin work on identifying different strains of algae. She traveled around the state taking samples from water sources. Those samples sit in petri dishes in a big shelving unit in her lab. They’re suspended inside Erlenmeyer flasks in the greenhouse. Today, Lee has proper funding and with the help of her students, they identified the Missouri algal strains.
We’ll have a story about the algae movement in Missouri, more on Lee’s research, and something we didn’t mention here: a coal-fired power plant in Chamois, Mo., exploring how open algae pools can help remove CO2 from flue gas.