UB, partners work to make algae fuel more efficient, affordable

A pair of gloved hands inside Ian Bradley's lab work with algae in test tubes.

Inside the lab of Ian Bradley, where researchers are finding innovative ways to improve algae cultivation for biofuels. Credit: Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

Team employs polyculture farming, AI and other tools to detect pests before they infect algae

By Peter Murphy

Release Date: March 8, 2024

Head shot of Ian Bradley.

Ian Bradley

“We want to make algae a viable producer for biofuel applications. Right now, it’s expensive and not consistent. Our goal is to predict the infections before they occur. ”
Ian Bradley, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering
University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Harvesting biofuel from algae is effective, but not yet practical.

A University at Buffalo-led research project – funded by a $2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant – is tackling this problem using polyculture farming, artificial intelligence, microscopy and other techniques.

Algae are micro-organisms that live in aquatic environments. They behave like plants and use photosynthesis to produce energy from sunlight.

Algal cultivation is an effective way to produce biomass, a renewable energy source that can be directly converted into biofuel — a fuel source that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The current process takes months and must restart whenever algal is attacked by micro-pests, like fungus.

“The algal cultures are always growing. When the system gets contaminated, the algae get completely wiped out,” says the grant’s principal investigator Ian Bradley, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. “You miss growing biomass for a few weeks or a few months and lose between 30-50% of the product.”

Bradley, who is also a core faculty member in UB's RENEW Institute, will lead the team in addressing this problem.

Tracking changes in algal DNA

Many biomass harvesters wait until an infiltration from pests occur and add chemicals or use other methods to remedy the infection. Bradley’s team at UB will examine environmental conditions like temperature, sunlight, and wastewater treatment, and track changes in the algae’s metagenomes and transcriptomes — DNA and RNA — before and after the organisms are infected.

Collaborators at the Georgia Institute of Technology will monitor these organisms using low-cost microscopy and provide updates about algae and pests in real-time. The team at Georgia Tech will also use artificial intelligence and deep learning to analyze data and try to develop predictive correlations between algae responses and environmental conditions.

“We want to make algae a viable producer for biofuel applications. Right now, it’s expensive and not consistent,” Bradley says. “Our goal is to predict the infections before they occur.”

Viable production

In addition to monitoring and understanding factors that lead to infection in algae cultures, Bradley and team will use polyculture farming — growing more than one crop species in the same space —  to protect biomass production. Polyculture farming mimics natural ecosystems and can increase crop diversity, enhance productivity and help protect against common pests.

“Pure cultures, or monocultures — made up of the same types of algae — are the most common for biomass production. When a fungus comes into a monoculture, it completely wipes it out and you get culture crash,” Bradley says. “We grow polycultures to make the process more sustainable. If fungus attacks and wipes out one type of algae, there are others to continue the process.”

Using polycultures also increases productivity because it prevents a complete restart in the biomass production process. Bradley believes using polycultures instead of monocultures could double productivity.

“We’re in phase one of this project. Phase two is to progress the state of this technology and then scale it up for implementation,” Bradley says.

Additional collaborators include researchers at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Montana-based Clearas Water Recovery, Inc.

The project is funded DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO). BETO awarded over $18 million in funding to several projects to produce affordable biofuels and bioproducts that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The projects will create good-paying jobs, support rural economies and encourage participation of underserved communities, all while putting the United States on a path to a clean and equitable energy economy,” the DOE says.

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