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Milking Diatoms for Sustainable Energy

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Along with colleagues from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Dr. Richard Gordon argues in a new paper, titled “Milking Diatoms for Sustainable Energy,” that diatoms – a type of algae found in oceans and lakes – could even be engineered to secrete gasoline directly.

Gordon and his scientist colleagues have a problem with the current algae-to-fuel approach, in that it relies on the harvesting of algae as they rapidly reproduce. The harvested algae are then dried – that is, killed – and put through a series of production processes.

They go on to propose a way to alter the cells of diatoms, through genetic manipulation, to “actively secrete their own oil droplets.” These engineered diatoms could then be bred in a type of solar panel designed to optimize conditions for photosynthesis and oil production.

As the diatoms gain mass by converting solar energy into oil, they will reach a stage where they automatically secrete oil droplets. Those droplets would then rise to the top, making the oil fairly simple to collect. It would be “very similar to the cream that rises to the top of mammalian milk that has not been homogenized,” according to the study, published this month in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.

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