University of Michigan (UM) researchers can now show a diverse mix of species improves the stability and fuel-oil yield of algal biofuel systems, as well as their resistance to invasion by outsiders. There’s been a dearth of algae news for quite some time now and this is the very best kind of news.

The UM scientists grew various combinations of freshwater algal species in 80 artificial ponds at UM’s E.S. George Reserve near Pinckney in the first large-scale, controlled experiment to test the widely held idea that biodiversity can improve the performance of algal biofuel systems in the field.

Overall, the researchers found that diverse mixes of algal species, known as polycultures, performed more key functions at higher levels than any single species – they were better at multitasking. But surprisingly, the researchers also found that polycultures did not produce more algal mass, known as biomass, than the most productive single species, or monoculture.

Study lead author Casey Godwin, a postdoctoral research fellow at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability said, “The results are key for the design of sustainable biofuel systems because they show that while a monoculture may be the optimal choice for maximizing short-term algae production, polycultures offer a more stable crop over longer periods of time.”

The team’s findings have been published in the journal Global Change Biology-Bioenergy.

In both phases of the study, colleagues at the UM College of Engineering used a technique called hydrothermal liquefaction to convert the algae into combustible oils, or biocrude, which can be refined to make transportation fuels like biodiesel.

Godwin explained, “First we evaluated different combinations of algae in the lab, and then we brought the best ones out to nature, where they were exposed to fluctuating weather conditions, pests, disease and all the other factors that have plagued algae-based fuel research efforts for 40 years.”

In their analysis of the algal samples collected during the 10-week E.S. George Reserve study, researchers compared the ability of monocultures and polycultures to do several jobs at once: to grow lots of algal biomass, to yield high-quality biocrude, to remain stable through time, to resist population crashes and to repel invasions by unwanted algal species.

Their analysis showed that the use of polycultures significantly delayed invasion by unwanted species of algae; that biocrude yields were significantly higher in the two- and four-species polycultures than in the monocultures; and that diverse crops of algae were more stable over time.

And while monocultures tended to be good at one or two jobs at a time, polycultures performed more of the jobs at higher levels than any of the monocultures, a trait called multifunctionality.

But at the same time, polycultures produced less biomass than the best-performing monoculture. And the use of polycultures had no significant effect on the magnitude and timing of sudden, sharp declines in algal production known as population crashes.

“Our findings suggest there is a fundamental tradeoff when growing algal biofuel,” said Cardinale, a professor at the UM School for Environment and Sustainability.

“You can grow single-species crops that produce large amounts of biomass but are unstable and produce less biocrude. Or, if you are willing to give up some yield, you can use mixtures of species to produce a biofuel system that is more stable through time, more resistant to pest species, and which yields more biocrude oil.”

In addition to Godwin and Cardinale, authors of the Global Change Biology paper are UM’s Aubrey Lashaway and David Hietala, and Phillip Savage of Pennsylvania State University.

Members of the same research team have published other recent papers that examine the benefits of diversity in algal biofuels systems for minimizing fertilizer use, recycling wastes, and improving the chemical properties of biocrude.

“Collectively, these results show how applying principles from ecology could help in the design of next-generation renewable fuel systems,” Godwin said.

Algae as a sustainable fuel has a great potential, but getting the cultivation matters worked out to production standards at prices that make competitive sense has been a multi-decade challenge. But little by little, research gets us closer and closer. Now if we could just get the interest level back up where the research news gets noticed.


1 Comment so far

  1. Jagdish on June 26, 2018 8:10 AM

    Development of fuel and hydrogen production from algae and other catalysts should be a new line in use of nuclear energy. Produce fuels by day and run fuel cells by it in nighttime.

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