GB #24: Pond Scum to Hydrogen

Well, it doesn’t get any greener than pond scum, does it? From Wired, news of a breakthrough in algae research that could have major impact on alternative energy developments:

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have engineered a strain of pond scum that could, with further refinements, produce vast amounts of hydrogen through photosynthesis.

The work, led by plant physiologist Tasios Melis, is so far unpublished. But if it proves correct, it would mean a major breakthrough in using algae as an industrial factory, not only for hydrogen, but for a wide range of products, from biodiesel to cosmetics.

The new strain of algae, known as C. reinhardtii, has truncated chlorophyll antennae within the chloroplasts of the cells, which serves to increase the organism’s energy efficiency. In addition, it makes the algae a lighter shade of green, which in turn allows more sunlight deeper into an algal culture and therefore allows more cells to photosynthesize.

“An increase in solar conversion efficiency to 10 percent … is thought to be enough to make the mass culture of algae viable,” says Juergen Polle, a former student of Melis’ who now does research on algae at the City University of New York, Brooklyn.

Polle points out that Melis has probably already reached that 10 percent threshold. But further refinements are still required before C. reinhardtii farms would be efficient enough to produce the world’s hydrogen, which is Melis’ eventual goal.

After 11 hours of blogging, I can’t say much more than “Wow… Cool…” As we’ve discussed uses of algae for energy and pollution control, as well as part of a closed-loop agricultural system, this has got to be a promising development. We’ll keep an eye on it…

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