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Breakthrough in climate change mitigation, renewable energy

By Chukwuma Muanya, Assistant Editor   |   06 April 2017   |   4:16 am

• Scientists engineer algae to help reduce global temperatures, sugarcane to produce biodiesel, ‘bionic leaf’ that could help end world hunger by turning sunlight into fertiliser

Researchers have made giant strides in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change especially the rising temperatures and its attendant consequences and in the development of renewable energy sources.

Scientists have found that microalgae could be crucial in stopping climate change. It can be used to make biofuels and even feed for farm animals and fish farms. Microalgae grows faster than terrestrial plants and produces an equal amount of food in less than one-tenth the land area, making it a “key solution.”

The report first published in DailyMailUK noted that biofuels made from marine microalgae could reduce the use of carbon-based fossil fuels such as petroleum. To make this type of biofuel, researchers harvest freshly grown microalgae, remove most of the water in it and then extract the lipid (fats) for the fuel.


The remaining defatted mixture is protein rich and highly nutritious, and it can be added to animal feeds for domesticated farm animals such as chickens and pigs, or as fish farming feeds for salmon and shrimp.

The researchers, based at Cornell University, United States (U.S.), said that marine microalgae might become crucial to mitigate atmospheric greenhouse gases and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from commercial agriculture.

Also, a multi-institutional team led by the University of Illinois, U.S., has proven sugarcane can be genetically engineered to produce oil in its leaves and stems for biodiesel production. Surprisingly, the modified sugarcane plants also produced more sugar, which could be used for ethanol production.

The dual-purpose bioenergy crops are predicted to be more than five times more profitable per acre than soybeans and two times more profitable than corn. More importantly, sugarcane can be grown on marginal land in the Gulf Coast region that does not support good corn or soybean yields.

Published in Biocatalysis and Agricultural Biotechnology, this paper analysed the project’s first genetically modified sugarcane varieties. Using a juicer, the researchers extracted about 90 per cent of the sugar and 60 per cent of the oil from the plant; the juice was fermented to produce ethanol and later treated with organic solvents to recover the oil. The team has patented the method used to separate the oil and sugar.

They recovered 0.5 and 0.8 per cent oil from two of the modified sugarcane lines, which are 67 per cent and 167 per cent more oil than unmodified sugarcane, respectively. Also, a new ‘green revolution’ could be brought about by a radical new leaf, which builds on nature – and surpasses it. The bionic leaf is an artificial system that mimics the process of photosynthesis, which is used by plants to produce fuel – to create fertiliser.

The device could one day be used to help boost crop yields in developing countries and help tackle world hunger.Harvard University researchers are hoping to help avert a global food crisis, brought on by booming populations around the world.

And they believe that their creation – which uses bacteria, sunlight, water and air to make fertiliser in the very soil where crops are grown – could help spur the next agricultural revolution.

The team is led by Dr. Daniel Nocera, a leading researcher in biochemistry who is known for his work on the artificial leaf.The team presented the work Monday at the 253rd meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Meanwhile, the algae study’s lead author and professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, Charles H. Greene, said: “We must stabilize Earth’s mean global temperature. To attain these targets set by our agreements at the Conference of the Parties (COP21) meetings in Paris, we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions to near zero by mid-century and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in this century’s latter half.”

Some researchers and policy analysts don’t believe that the COP21 climate goals, which aim to hold the rise of the mean global temperature to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, are achievable.

But the researchers favor using microalgae as a key solution in achieving those goals. “We believe these climate goals are attainable, but we must constrain rapidly and then start removing it from the atmosphere,” said Greene.

While renewable forms of energy such as solar farms, wind turbines and hydro systems are creating fossil-fuel free electricity; aircrafts and ships need liquid fuels. But biofuels made from marine microalgae could reduce the use of carbon-based fossil fuels such as petroleum.

To make this type of biofuel, researchers harvest freshly grown microalgae, remove most of the water in it and then extract the lipid (fats) for the fuel.The remaining defatted mixture is protein rich and highly nutritious, and it can be added to animal feeds for domesticated farm animals such as chickens and pigs, or as fish farming feeds for salmon and shrimp.


This type of feed can also make animal products healthier – when chickens consumed algae-supplemented feeds, they produced eggs with three times the omega-3 fatty acids. Another way microalgae may be beneficial for the environment is that they grow faster than terrestrial plants and require less space.

By replacing traditional land-based crops with marine microalgae, there will be less carbon dioxide emitted, which could help achieve climate stabilization goals. Greene said that significant research and development investments would be essential over the next decade to improve bioenergy and food production.

“As this technology ramps up to globally relevant scales during the coming decades, society’s prospects improve for meeting the COP21 stabilization targets, while simultaneously achieving energy and food security,” he said.


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