Science and Environment

Better off scummed!

STAR SCIENCE - Ronie J. Calugay, Ph.D. -

(First of two parts)

In the Oscar-nominated film War of the Worlds directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the novel by the master science fiction writer H.G. Wells, Earth was ravaged by invading aliens. For most viewers, the movie’s ending was boring and anticlimactic. Earth’s most advanced military defense was overwhelmed; no heroic diehard, high speed and down to the wire offensive air combats to annihilate the invaders. Instead, the monstrous aliens just suddenly died. A narration followed about the lack of immunity to Earth’s microorganisms as the cause of the alien wipeout, and then, the end!

True, in terms of entertainment, the story did not end with a bang, but in the real world, microorganisms may indeed one day save our planet! No, not from invading aliens, but from an issue that alienates one nation from the other. The constant issue with a global effect is our dependence on oil. Scientists discovered an almost limitless resource of microscopic solar-powered oil wells! These are plant-like microorganisms called microalgae which produce oil that may replace transport fuel. They are actually the common pond scum, and in the Philippines, we call it lumot.

Research on microalgae as fuel source actually began 50 years ago, but further studies eventually faded into obscurity because of abundant availability at that time of oil in the world market derived from fossil fuels. As the present search for alternatives to fossil fuel is getting intense, research on microalgal oil production is making its explosive comeback! While HIV, H1N1, Saccharomyces, E. coli and Botulinum are hitting textbooks and the world headlines, the time has come for the boring and lowly slimy pond scum to shine!

The war in the air

Fossil fuel is derived from the remains of plants and animals buried and accumulated under the seabed about 300 to 650 million years ago. Pumping out oil from fossil fuel entails complex drilling which damages marine life and habitat. Combustion follows to refine the oil into usable form and this burning process emits CO2 and toxic particles into the air we breathe. These may travel for miles and float up there for several weeks causing fatal respiratory diseases and according to a number of scientists, global warming. Emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles may also have carcinogenic effects. An oil spill is another tragic story.

How can a pond scum aid in solving these gigantic problems? Through its ingenious utilization of sunlight! How? Just think of that cute Earth-friendly robot Wall-E; he does not gather food around him to survive. To start his day, he opens his solar panels to absorb sunlight, then he’s energized to do what he was programmed to do, to clean Earth by piling scattered scrap metals as high as skyscrapers in barren land. Likewise, nature has wired microalgae to make food and energize itself through the sunlight in a process called photosynthesis. Like in trees, this process cleanses the air by directly capturing CO2 and then oxygen is released into the air. In short, CO2 in, oxygen out. Microalgae are green because they possess the green pigment chlorophyll which absorbs energy from sun rays that drives the conversion of CO2 ultimately to sugars, amino acids and fatty acids. Chlorophyll is like Wall-E’s solar panels and the oxygen molecules released by microalgae through photosynthesis are like Wall-E’s cleanup of towering piles of scrap metals. The fatty acids are the fats which scientists extract from microalgae for further chemical reactions in the lab to obtain a refined transport fuel with much less harmful emissions than fossil fuel.

Why didn’t we utilize this alternative before we got hooked on fossil fuel? One man’s insane and deadly obsession for world domination influenced the direction of science and history. Science historians believe that fossil fuel technologies were significantly advanced over microalgal fuel because of World War II. The urgent need to fuel Hitler’s as well as the Allied forces’ tankers, subs, jetfighters, bombers, cruisers and other weapons set the stage for fossil fuel as the world’s main source of energy.

The Slime Machine

We cannot go back in time before the 1940s to advance alternative technologies and block the advancement of fossil fuel technology. But thanks to modern biotechnologists, they are now hard at work pursuing an unfinished business.

Fuel derived from living organisms like microalgae or crops is termed biofuel or biodiesel. Crops like soybeans, corn, coconut, palm, peanut, grapeseed and jathropa are also currently tapped as alternative sources of transport fuel. Fuel from crops, however, has limitations; scientists found that the quality is not suitable as jet fuel, so this idea just won’t fly! Policy-makers also fear that crops for oil production require vast areas of land and may affect the world food supply.

Unlike crops, microalgae rapidly multiply within 24 hours, hence they can be mass-produced and provide greater oil yields in a much shorter period of time. Microalgal oil is harvested from open ponds under the sun called raceways, but these also require relatively wide areas of land and are prone to contamination. Biotechnologists therefore, like Dr. Yusuf Chisti of the Institute of Technology and Engineering, Massey University in New Zealand, are building and designing enclosed circular vessels called photobioreactors to provide a clean artificial environment in which light intensity, CO2, oxygen, temperature, pH and other parameters are meticulously controlled to ensure optimum conditions for the microalgae to grow buff and multiply at a faster rate and yield abundant amounts of oil. Comparing to crop yield of up to 5,950 liters of oil per hectare of land, a photobioreactor standing on a land area 22 times less has been reported to yield up to 136,900 liters of oil!

The world fossil fuel reserves are not limitless resources; they cannot be replenished, hence fossil fuel is referred to as non-renewable energy. But we have resources of microalgae as vast as the oceans and in all the bodies of water of the Earth and even in remote and extremely frigid deep layers of ice in Antarctica. Scientists and oil entrepreneurs just need a very small drop containing isolated oil-producing microalgae to seed starter vessels for large-scale cultivation in photobioreactors. Drops from these vessels in turn can seed other new starters or photobioreactors and so on. In short, we have a cyclic supply of scum to replenish photobioreactors just from that single drop! Hence microalgae are categorized as a source of sustainable or renewable energy. Current photobioreactors, however, are considered still at their prototype stage in terms of a more cost-effective structure and design to compete with fossil fuel prices. It is also proposed that industrial and coal power plant CO2 emissions can be piped into photobioreactors, putting these harmful emissions into good use. In the event of oil spills, don’t fear! Biodiesel is non-toxic and four times more biodegradable, meaning it can be decomposed by nature and bacteria, much faster than diesel derived from fossil fuels. Indeed, the oil market and this world are better off scummed!

(To be concluded)

* * *

Dr. Ronnie J. Calugay finished his Ph.D. in Biotechnology and Life Sciences at the Department of Biotechnology, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, where he studied unusual bacteria that produce magnets. He conducted his Master’s thesis in Microbiology at the same university where he worked on the transfer of bacterial genes into marine microalgae. He was formerly a university research associate at the Natural Sciences Research Institute of his alma mater, the University of the Philippines, Diliman, where they collected, isolated and characterized microalgae from selected Philippine marine waters. E-mail him at [email protected]










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