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Mechanical Milking Of Microalgae For Fuel Production
Is it possible to produce usable fuel from algae? The question was first asked during WWII, but decades of research have not really provided a usable answer.
Algae is favorable to petroleum from an environmental standpoint but the production cost of culturing, collecting, extracting and refining adds up to make it too expensive for practical use...
A research team led by Alice Uchida and Masaki Ihara of Shinshu University succeeded in developing a method of cultivating microalgae by solving three issues of cultivation; collection/recovery of compounds and extraction/purification of products with this new method. First, it was necessary not to kill the algal cells during extraction. By preserving the algae, there is no need to cultivate and multiply the algae. Secondly, the algae they chose naturally gather together for ease of collection. Thirdly, the compounds wanted for harvest; polysaccharides (carbohydrates) and phycobiliproteins are released outside of the algae and bound to the cell surface. There is no need for a solvent for extraction or purification, dramatically simplifying and decreasing the cost of processing. This non-destructive continuous milking system is a practical and effective method of algae-derived chemical production.
Science fiction readers were provided with fuel for thought soon after scientists proposed the question. In his 1950 novel Needle, Hal Clement wrote about culture tanks that would accomplish this feat:
"They call 'em culture tanks. They have bugs -- germs -- growing in them; germs that eat pretty near anything, and produce oil as a waste product. That's the purpose of the whole business. We dump everything that's waste into the tanks, pump the oil off the top, and every so often clean the sludge out of the bottom -- that's a nasty job."
(Read more about Hal Clement's culture tank)
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