SYRACUSE (US)—Engineers have found a way to create accelerated photosynthesis and make biofuel-friendly algae grow faster.

The discovery is a promising step toward an efficient, economical, and sustainable way to produce biofuels from non-edible sources. The work is covered in this month’s issue of Nature.

The Syracuse University research team developed a new bioreactor that can enhance algae growth. They accomplished this by utilizing nanoparticles that selectively scatter blue light, promoting algae metabolism.

When the optimal combination of light and confined nanoparticle suspension configuration was used, the team was able to achieve growth enhancement of an algae sample of greater than 30 percent as compared to a control.

“Algae produce triglycerides, which consist of fatty acids and glycerin. The fatty acids can be turned into biodiesel while the glycerin is a valuable byproduct,” says Radhakrishna Sureshkumar, professor of biomedical and chemical engineering.

“Molecular biologists are actively seeking ways to engineer optimal algae strains for biofuel production. Enhancing the phototropic growth rate of such optimal organisms translates to increased productivity in harvesting the feedstock.”

The process involved the creation of a miniature bioreactor that consisted of a petri dish of a strain of green algae (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) on top of another dish containing a suspension of silver nanoparticles that served to backscatter blue light into the algae culture.

The team discovered that by varying the concentration and size of the nanoparticle solution they could manipulate the intensity and frequency of the light source, thereby achieving an optimal wavelength for algal growth.

“Implementation of easily tunable wavelength specific backscattering on larger scales still remains a challenge, but its realization will have a substantial impact on the efficient harvesting of phototrophic microorganisms and reducing parasitic growth,” says Sureshkumar.

“Devices that can convert light not utilized by the algae into the useful blue spectral regime can also be envisioned.”

To date, this is one of the first explorations into utilizing nanobiotechnology to promote microalgal growth. The acceleration in the growth rate of algae also had numerous benefits outside the area of biofuel production. The researchers will be looking to employ this discovery to further their research in creating environmental sensors for ecological warning systems.

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