Algae crucial to planet’s survival could help revolutionise biofuels

14 Aug 2019

Image: © Paweł Burgiel/

Looking at the way certain algae harness solar energy could help us produce next-generation biofuels.

Renewable biofuels are seen as the inevitable replacement for polluting fossil fuels, but we’re still trying to perfect their production and make them substantially more efficient. Now, a research team led by Rutgers University has made a discovery that could lead to substantially more efficient and affordable algae-based biofuels.

Publishing its findings to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team discovered how diatoms – a type of alga that produces 20pc of Earth’s oxygen – harness solar energy for photosynthesis. It now hopes to apply this knowledge to the biofuel production process.

Diatoms are ubiquitous in oceans and waterways, and play a crucial role in the removal of carbon from our atmosphere. Their fossil oils are also considered the source of the highest quality petroleum used today.

Microscopic image of Phaeodactylum tricornutum diatoms.

Phaeodactylum tricornutum diatoms. Image: Ananya Agarwal/Rutgers Biophysics Molecular Ecology Laboratory

Using a 3D bioimaging tool, the team was able to reveal the proteins known as Photosystem II, which diatoms use to absorb sunlight and power their photosynthesis. This showed that each cell includes two sets of proteins, with only one set active. The active set was found to have a structure associated with pigment proteins – such as green chlorophyll that absorbs sunlight – in an antenna to harvest light for photosynthesis.

The research team is now attempting to understand the limits of the power of photosynthesis in algae and to harnessing that power to produce biofuels. Under the right conditions, algae can produce huge quantities of biofuels for vehicles, aircraft and trains.

“The next steps are to try to understand the mechanisms that control the dynamics between the proteins and support robust biochemical energy production,” said senior author Wei Dai.

However, a warning was issued last month by researchers highlighting the rise of a ‘vampire’ algae killer that sucks out the contents of algae cells. In doing so, it turns a productive, thriving, green algae pond into a large vat of useless, rotting sludge.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic