A new report published in the academic journal Planta sheds new light on the growth cycles and oil production of green algae, which many scientists believe could be a viable source of renewable energy in the future if researchers are able to better understand how they operate.
The main issue with using algae for oil production is that the conditions leading to higher rates of creation are detrimental to the health of the algae cells. Scientists have determined that depriving them of nitrogen causes more biofuel to be produced, but also results in slower growth. Ideally, one would be able to achieve high rates of fuel creation without inhibiting the development of the algae themselves.
The Planta study, written by researchers at the University of Florida, made some key discoveries about the way green algae react to limited nitrogen. The cells are able to begin producing lipids (oils) within just hours of being starved of nitrogen, and that 30 percent of those were created as the alga's cell membrane began to collapse under stress.
"Our hope is that what we have done will be helpful to understand what's going on in cells under nitrogen starvation and might help us to tweak the technique where we can use the cells to make lipids but not necessarily stop growth—that's our long-term goal," Bala Rathinasabapathi, professor of horticulture science at the University of Florida, told scientific news site Futurity.
Biofuels will be an important part of the world's renewable energy portfolio. Although burning these fuels produces carbon dioxide, they are derived from plants that absorb carbon from the atmosphere. If scientists can engineer production processes that are less energy intensive, it could result in a carbon neutral fuel for cars and electricity production.