Biomass from Microalgae

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A promising future of renewable energy

by Rubina Obaid

Increasing energy crises and emission of harmful greenhouse gases have aggravated the need of alternate and environment-friendly sources of energy.  Microalgae have been identified as one of the key renewable energy sources and considered as sustainable and economical sources of bio fuels. The photosynthesis mechanism of microalgae converts solar energy into biomass and efficiently fix CO2 way better than land plants. It has gained significant attraction worldwide to investigate the potential benefits to replace fossil based fuels and other value added products with noteworthy biological and pharmacological qualities. These photosynthetic microorganisms grow in aquatic habitats and are responsible to supply major percentage of Earth’s oxygen. They are rich source of carbon compounds, which is used in biofuels and also mitigate atmospheric carbon dioxide and releases oxygen as a byproduct.

Significance of microalgae as a renewable source of energy intrigued the interest of Dr Foo Su Chern, Science lecturer of Monash University Malaysia. As the unique feature of microalgae allows the direct conversion of its stored energy to liquid fuels which are used for transportation. However, its dilute nature makes it a major challenge to cultivate and store it efficiently. Hence, the obscurity and related challenges developed her curiosity to further study and explore.

There are more than 100,000 microalgae species which are documented and far more than that are yet to be explored, said Dr Foo. Most commonly known species are spirulina, chlorella and dunaliellah are useful for producing nutraceutical food supplements. Dr. Foo stresses over the measures to be taken for reduction of carbon from atmosphere and she believes microalgae can play pivotal role in betterment for climate change as they have smaller carbon foot prints in contrast to other crops and high yield.

Microalgae are the source of metabolic and genetic diversity and can easily grow on wasteland using brackish or wastewater. They can easily be cultivated in Malaysia due to its tropical climate and consistent sunshine throughout the year. It requires only seven days for them to mature. Dr Foo will be bioprospecting for her current research project on tropical microalgae species to further identify the production of valuable compounds. The project will be funded by Sunway Group’s Sustainable Community Grant scheme, that will essentially focus on biological resources for carbon capture.

In the beginning Dr Foo and her team will focus on targeting one specie and eventually following experiments on different species and their growth rates. Faster growth will enable the team to produce more biomass in short run. In second stage Monash Malaysia School of Engineering lecturer and a Masters’ student will build a photobioreactor to grow microalgae biomass through photosynthesis in larger scale. Biomass will be harvested in third phase and to extract bioactive such as antioxidants from microalgae cell, ionic liquid will be used.

The actual challenge is to lower the cost of bioreactor, to introduce microalgae biomass usage into homes and businesses as bioreactor in the markets are generally unaffordable. A huge chunk of money has been allocated in installation of sensors for calculating carbon capture, added Dr Foo. Initial finding of research will be published by March 2020. Energy produced by micro algae can power the whole building, apart from using it for architectural aesthetics, she said. Further public parks should be used for introducing algae domes to utilize natural sunlight the growth of microalgae.

Dr Foo and her team are keen to present the findings to Sunway Group and will look forward for implementation of microalgae bioreactors in their malls or commercial buildings. In order to promote microalgae as sustainable resource in Southeast Asian context Dr Foo would like to administer more research opportunities to thoroughly understand the usefulness of microalgae and making it more accessible for public.



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