Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Research points to a future biofuel: Fistulifera solaris

Biofuels made from plant-produced oils are an attractive alternative to fossil fuels. However, the enormous amount of arable land needed for production and the competition between their uses as food/feed and fuel present obstacles to the production of biofuels from crops. These considerations have led to focus on microalgae as oil producers. Microalgae are tiny photosynthetic organisms found in both ocean water and freshwater. They grow quickly in liquid culture and can produce high levels of oils. In fact, the omega-3 fatty acids present in fish are actually produced by microalgae that are eaten by the fish. Institutions throughout the world have generated collections of wild microalgae in efforts to find species with desirable characteristics.
One such microalga is a species of diatom called Fistulifera solaris, which is emerging as a promising candidate for next-generation biofuel technology. Diatoms are microscopic algae that are major contributors to marine ecosystems; they are also the basis of diatomaceous earth, which is used by gardeners as a natural pest deterrent. Not only doesF. solaris grow quickly and produce high levels of oils, it does both at the same time, unlike other oil-producing microalgae that produce their highest amounts of oil at stages when they grow slowly, if at all. These characteristics make F. solaris an excellent candidate for batch culture (see figure) to produce biomass from which oil for biofuels can be harvested.
F. solaris was originally isolated from samples taken at the junction of two rivers in Japan. A collaboration of scientists in Japan and France aimed to elucidate the molecular underpinnings of simultaneous growth and oil production by sequencing the genome of F. solaris and also cataloguing the transcriptome - providing a read-out of all genes expressed at a given time. Lead scientist Dr. Tsuyoshi Tanaka of the Division of Biotechnology and Life Science in the Institute of Engineering at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, highlights the need for this information, saying "Biofuel production using photosynthetic organisms such as microalgae is one of the most promising approaches to generating sustainable energy. However, the molecular functions of organisms such as oleaginous microalgae remain unclear, thus hampering efforts to improve productivity". Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.
original author: Nancy Hofmann, PhD 
avoiding fossil fuels: ed.
image credit s frost

Monday, 2 February 2015

Mining the moon becomes a serious prospect

With an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of water ice at its poles and an abundance of rare-earth elements hidden below its surface, the Moon is rich ground for mining.
In this month’s issue of Physics World, science writer Richard Corfield explains how private firms and space agencies are dreaming of tapping into these lucrative resources and turning the Moon's grey, barren landscape into a money-making conveyer belt. A video preview of the February issue of Physics World can be viewed here.
Since NASA disbanded its manned Apollo missions to the Moon over 40 years ago, unmanned spaceflight has made giant strides and has identified a bountiful supply of water ice at the north and south poles of the Moon.
“It is this, more than anything else,” Cornfield writes, “that has kindled interest in mining the Moon, for where there is ice, there is fuel.”
Texas-based Shackleton Energy Company (SEC) plans to mine the vast reserves of water ice and convert it into rocket propellant in the form of hydrogen and oxygen, which would then be sold to space partners in low Earth orbit.
As the company’s chief executive officer, Dale Tietz, explains, the plan is to build a “gas station in space” in which rocket propellant will be sold at prices significantly lower than the cost of sending fuel from Earth.
SEC plans to extract the water ice by sending humans and robots to mine the lunar poles, and then use some of the converted products to power mining hoppers, lunar rovers and life support for its own activities.
Moon Express, another privately funded lunar-resources company, is also interested in using water ice as fuel – but in a different form. It plans to fuel its operations and spacecraft using “high-test peroxide” (HTP), which has a long and illustrious history as a propellant.
As for mining the rare-earth elements on the Moon, China is making the most noticeable headway. The Jade Rabbit lander successfully touched down on the Moon in December 2013 and the Chinese space agency has publicly suggested establishing a “base on the Moon as we did in the South Pole and the North Pole”.
With a near-monopoly on the dwindling terrestrial rare-earth elements, which are vital for everything from mobile phones to computers and car batteries, it is no surprise that China may want to cast its net wider.
“All interested parties agree that the Moon – one step from Earth – is the essential first toehold for humankind’s diaspora to the stars,” Corfield concludes.
Perhaps the mining bases on the moon will be built using 3D printing, as described earlier: ed.
photo credit ESA