Fancy putting a bit of the aquatic in your gas tank? Go to California. A new kind of biodiesel, containing 20-percent algae-based fuel, went on sale at gas stations in the San Francisco Bay area last week as part of a one-month pilot program. The fuel emits 10 percent fewer hydrocarbons, 30 percent fewer particulates, and 20 percent less carbon monoxide than other biodiesels according to its producer, Solazyme, reports Yale Environment 360. This is the first time that an algae-based fuel has made it into cars.
More than 1.6 billion years ago, one cell engulfed another and put it to work. More specifically, a eukaryotic cell, the sort of cell that contains distinct structures with different functions, took in a blue-green bacterium that could do something it could not: use sunlight to make sugars. The ancient eukaryote then reproduced the bacterium in all of its cells, making it a permanent part of the intracellular environment. What was once an independent microbe was now the chloroplast: the cellular structure, or organelle, that plant cells use to photosynthesize. They’ve been together ever since, an absorption known as endosymbiosis.
Nor, scientists think, were chloroplasts the only parts of cells that were once bacteria: Mitochondria, organelles that produce energy in plant and animal cells, got their start the same way, and some other organelles may have, as well. Now researchers have found another useful bacterium that they think is on its way to becoming a modern organelle of another eukaryotic cell—this time, an alga rather than a plant or animal. Studying this relationship would allow scientists to witness endosymbiosis in action, something they had long theorized but never seen.
Carved into the northern slopes of China’s Mount Gongga, the Yaijiageng river valley looks like the site of a massive paint spill. But the red is actually all-natural: it is a massive bloom of a newly discovered variety of algae. The alga belongs to the species Trentepohlia jolithus, which is capable of growing on rocks and tree trunks. This yajiagengensis variety, named after the river valley where it originates, only grows on local exposed rock—and with debris and human activities blocking and rerouting the flow of the Yajiageng river in recent years, a lot more stone has become exposed. The alga’s spread has turned the location into a tourist attraction with the nickname “Red-Stone-Valley.”
[via New Scientist]
Image courtesy of Guoxiang Liu
What’s the News: Spotted salamander embryos, a recent study found, have green algae living inside their cells. While scientists have long known that the two species are symbiotic, each helping the other to survive, the new findings show that the arrangement is, in the researchers’ words, “more intimate than previously reported.” In fact, it’s the first such organism-within-cell partnership—known as endosymbiosis—ever observed in vertebrates.
How the Heck:
In the future, nuclear clean-up workers may be getting help from some surprising sources. None of these three methods are in widespread use right now, but they show promise:
What’s the Context: The danger of strontium-90 is that it is chemically similar to calcium, and so can be taken up into milk, bones, and other tissues. Nuclear waste and spills can contain significant amounts of strontium; C. moniliferum is especially helpful because it can precipitate strontium but leave calcium alone (calcium is different enough from barium that the bacteria doesn’t crystallize it).
Not So Fast: Scientists don’t yet know how well the algae can withstand radioactivity, which could potentially put a damper on this clean-up method. Now, the scientists would like to find ways of increasing sulphate levels in the environment, which may in turn increase the ability of the algae to crystallize strontium.
California sea otters, furry frolickers of the saltwater seas, are in trouble. And the root cause is… a freshwater toxin? That’s the surprising truth, according to a study in the journal PLoS One led by Melissa Miller, a state wildlife veterinarian.
For the last several years, the otters on California’s coast have been dying in droves, and their population diminishing. No one could quite put a finger on why. Disease and starvation floated as explanations, and sharks seem to be devouring more sea otters lately. But none of these were the root cause, Miller finally found.
The primary reactions in photosynthesis—the first steps in plants’ conversion of sunlight energy into energy stored in carbohydrates—are incredibly efficient. And in a new study in Nature, chemists reveal that they may have found part of the reason why: quantum mechanics.
A couple years ago, scientists first showed in bacteria proteins that the electrons were moving according to a quantum mechanical phenomenon called coherence, rather than abiding by the classical laws of physics. But where those early experiments had been cooled to 77 kelvins (–196 degrees Celsius)—this experiment was the first conducted at room temperature, 294 K, to replicate such effects [Scientific American]. Thus, the new study, which was done on marine algae, suggests this phenomenon can occur in a living biological system.
When algae is discussed as an alternative source of biofuel, it’s often in tones of breathless excitement; many green tech boosters believe that the slimy goo can be turned into fuel superior to that made from corn, canola, or switch grass.
You don’t need vast tracts of land to cultivate algae for biofuel, the thinking goes, all you need is the right strain of algae, water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. Even Exxon and Dow Chemical recently joined the biofuel brigade, and are now investing millions in algae operations.
But a new study suggests that while algae might produce good fuel, the environmental costs involved in the production would be heavy. A life-cycle assessment published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology argues that algae production consumes more water and energy than other biofuel sources like corn, canola, and switch grass, and also has higher greenhouse gas emissions. While the study’s results are sobering, they’re also being met with harsh criticism from alage-based biofuel companies and their trade group, the Algal Biomass Association.
Earlier this week, the oil giant ExxonMobil announced a significant shift in direction: Rather than drilling ever downward in an attempt to find more oil, the company will invest heavily in green, growing things that can manufacture biofuel. Exxon plans to put $600 million into the production of algae-based biofuels, and will partner with the genetics company Synthetic Genomics run by genomics pioneer Craig Venter. The announcement came just a week after another industrial giant, Dow Chemical, declared its own investment in algae technology.
The biofuel industry is currently facing a shift from first-generation biofuels to so-called advanced biofuels as evidence mounts that corn-based ethanol and soybean biodiesel are not as ecologically, socially or economically sustainable as many first thought…. Algae have been touted as a better organic material for producing biofuel by many researchers and entrepreneurs. It does not take up any arable land and can be grown in controlled conditions; at a basic level algae only needs water, sunlight, carbon dioxide and some nutrients to grow [CNN].
At a Texas industrial site, the vats of chemicals may soon stand adjacent to long tubes filled with algae. Industrial giant Dow Chemical today announced a new partnership with startup company Algenol Biofuels to build a pilot plant, which will use algae to convert carbon dioxide emissions into ethanol. That ethanol could be used either as a biofuel or, eventually, as an ingredient for Dow’s plastics.
Pond scum is one of the hottest trends in green technology, and a few dozen companies are racing to bring algae-based biofuels to the market. But one prominent algae company, GreenFuel, went out of business just a few months ago, leading some commentators to believe that we are a longer way off from commercialization than claimed by breathless algae start-up press releases [Greentech Media]. If Dow and Algenol can bring their plans to fruition, it will be the most compelling argument yet that the renewable energy source does have the potential that its supporters say.