Newswise – Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientists are using artificial intelligence to set a new world record for algae production as a reliable, cost-effective source of biofuel that can be used as an alternative fuel source for jet aircraft and aircraft other transportation needs.
Joshua Yuan, Ph.D., AgriLife researcher, professor and chair of synthetic biology and renewable products at Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, leads the research project.
The team’s findings were published in January in Nature Communication. Ongoing research is funded by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy. The work is also funded by a donation from Dr. John ’90 and Sally ’92 Hood, who recently met with Yuan to discuss his biofuels research program. The donation is managed by the Texas A&M Foundation.
The project team includes Bin Long, a graduate student from the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology; Bart Fischer, Ph.D., co-director of the Texas A&M Agricultural and Food Policy Center and the Texas A&M Department of Agricultural Economics; Henry Bryant, Ph.D., Department of Agricultural Economics; and Yining Zeng, Ph.D., researcher at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Solving the limits of algae as a biofuel
“The commercialization of algal biofuel has been hampered by the relatively low yield and high harvesting cost,” Yuan said. “Limited light penetration and poor cultivation dynamics both contributed to the low yield.”
Overcoming these challenges could enable viable algal biofuels to reduce carbon emissions, mitigate climate change, ease oil dependency and transform the bioeconomy, Yuan said.
Yuan has already succeeded in finding methods to convert corn stubble, grasses and mesquite into biodegradable, lightweight materials and bioplastics. His latest project uses a patented advanced artificial intelligence learning model to predict light penetration, growth and optimal algae density. The prediction model allows continuous harvesting of synthetic algae using hydroponics to maintain rapid growth at optimum density to allow for better light availability.
The method that Yuan and his team managed to achieve in an outdoor experiment is 43.3 grams per square meter per day of biomass productivity, which would be a world record. The latest DOE target range is 25 grams per square meter per day.
“Algae can be used as an alternative energy source for many industries, including biofuels and jet fuel,” Yuan said. “Seaweed is a good alternative fuel source for this industry. It is an alternative feedstock for bioethanol refinery without the need for pre-treatment. It is cheaper than coal or natural gas. It also provides a more efficient way to capture and use carbon.
Yuan said seaweed can also be used as a source of animal feed. AgriLife Research has previously studied seaweed as a source of protein for livestock.
Algae as renewable energy
Algae-based biofuel is considered one of the ultimate renewable energy solutions, but its commercialization is hampered by growth limitations caused by mutual shading and high harvesting costs.
“We overcome these challenges by advancing machine learning to inform the design of semi-continuous algal culture (SAC) to maintain optimal cell growth and minimize mutual shadowing,” he said. declared.
Yuan said he used an aggregation-based sedimentation strategy designed to achieve low-cost biomass harvesting and economical SAC.
“Aggregation-based sedimentation is achieved by engineering a rapidly growing blue-green algal strain, Synechococcus elongatus UTEX2973, to produce limonene, which increases the hydrophobicity of the cell surface of cyanobacteria and enables aggregation and effective cell sedimentation,” he said.
Making algae an economical energy
Scaling the SAC with an outdoor pond system achieves a biomass yield of 43.3 grams per square meter per day, bringing the minimum sale price of biomass down to around $281 per ton, according to the newspaper article. By comparison, the standard low-cost feedstock for biomass in ethanol is corn, which currently costs around $6 per bushel or $260 per tonne. However, Yuan’s process does not require expensive pre-treatment prior to fermentation. The corn must be ground and the mash must be cooked before fermentation.
“Algae as a renewable fuel source was a hot topic a decade ago,” Fischer said. “As a result, there is a lot of skepticism. I was even skeptical. However, the work Joshua does is incredibly innovative. We were delighted to be associated with this project. At the levels of productivity they are achieving – and considering the low cost harvesting the strain allows – this looks very promising.
Yuan said that despite great potential and great efforts, the commercialization of algal biofuel has been hampered by limited sunlight penetration, poor cultivation dynamics, relatively low yield and lack of industrial harvesting methods. profitable.
“This technology has proven to be affordable and helps power algae as a true form of alternative energy,” he said.