Michigan State University will collaborate with ExxonMobil to expand research designed to progress the fundamental science required to advance algae-based fuels.
The overall goal of the partnership is to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis in microalgae to produce biofuels and bioproducts, according to David Kramer, MSU’s John Hannah Distinguished Professor in Photosynthesis and Bioenergetics at the MSU-DOE Plant and Research Laborator
“Photosynthesis is the biological process that plants and algae use to store solar energy in biomass. It is how all our food is made, and we would starve without it,” said Kramer, who is leading a US$1 million grant with Ben Lucker with the PRL and Joe Weissman, Distinguished Scientific Associate at ExxonMobil.
The key to bioenergy is the efficiency of photosynthesis, the process algae use to capture solar energy and the first step in converting the energy from the sun into a liquid fuel. Past research has shown that algae photosynthesis can be highly efficient under optimal conditions in the laboratory. Under realistic growth conditions however, this efficiency drops. There is a need to improve photosynthesis under simulated production environments.
“Fortunately, nature has provided us with a great potential for improvement. There are many different strains of algae that have adapted to work well in different environments,” Kramer said. “What we want to do is figure out how they are able to do this and what genes are responsible. With this knowledge, we can potentially combine traits to make strains that are more efficient even under harsh conditions.”
The project will take advantage of these natural variations as well as a suite of new technologies developed by the Kramer lab at PRL that allow rapid, high-throughput testing of photosynthetic efficiency of many algal lines under simulated growth conditions. One of these technologies, developed through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy is a matrix of specialized chambers, called the environmental PhotoBioReactor, that allow algae to be studied in detail under simulated production environments.
The second Kramer lab technology, developed with support from the Photosynthetic Systems and Physical Biosciences programs at the DOE (Basic Energy Sciences program), is called PhotosynQ and is a network of portable sensors called MultispeQ that are being used by many researchers around the world to probe photosynthesis. These sensors allow the Kramer lab to measure the photosynthetic processes in many algal cultures at the same time under different conditions to learn why some strains are more efficient than others.
“Combining these technologies will allow us to determine which algae are the most efficient under a range of conditions,” Kramer said. “Then we can use a different set of technologies to figure out why they do better and which genes are responsible.”