One of the most promising avenues of alternative energy research is that of algal biodiesel. Certain species of algae produce lipids in large quantities (sometimes over 50% of their dry mass). Their production of oil, however, can vary widely, depending on the numerous parameters, like CO2 concentration, nitrogen concentration, light exposure, temperature and pH. Additionally, maintenance and nutrients add a lot of overhead, which has made biodiesel unprofitable. As a solution to these problems, we wish to direct the evolution of an organism that produces oil fast, more consistently, and in larger quantities. So far, directed evolution of algae has mainly been performed on the macroscopic level. We believe that miniaturizing the process will confer several advantages, the most important of which is the precise control of all parameters of the system, allowing us to apply many controls to our experiments. Our group will thus be using microfluidic technology. For the selection of preferred properties, we will be employing chemical spectroscopy, which we believe is the best way to measure oil content as it is fast and does not perturb the system.
Another idea we have put forth is to create an artificial ecosystem of microorganisms to gradually eliminate the dependence on external parameters like nitrogen and other nutrients that increase the cost of the biofuel. This is how mother nature has created oil for millennia, so it would behoove us to use this as a first principle and go from there. I'll add more on this later as my ideas mature into working experiments with data.
APS March Meeting 2009 Abstract
Some species of photosynthetic microalgae produce significant amounts of oil which can be easily converted to diesel fuel. However, as it stands today, biodiesel is significantly more expensive than fossil fuels. We wish to improve the oil yield and production rate of a single species of microalgae through directed evolution. We propose to utilize our microfabication technology to create microhabitats to control the nutrient environment of the species, monitor oil production through Raman Spectroscopy, and punish colonies of algae which have low oil yield. We believe this process will produce a mutant species with a high oil yield.