NTB: Is that technology in use currently?
Bebout: No, that patent was awarded, and we hope to find partners to start using them to get further in-field testing. We would love to see that take off.
NTB: What other kinds of opportunities exist in the microbial ecology field? What gets you excited about the work and the future of this field?
Bebout: I just feel like there are so many opportunities. As an ecologist, it’s exciting to see a systems biology approach that looks at the environment and the microbes together. For example, right now a typical method for raising algae in raceways is to link it to a coal-fired plant, or another power plant that captures CO2. Actual CO2 becomes limiting very quickly as the light comes on, the cells use it all, which then requires you to force CO2 into the system. It’s good to use those sources – that means carbon is used twice. But the tantalizing thing about algae is that it may help us with lowering CO2 in the atmosphere, but if you’re using fossil fuels CO2 to feed your algae, then you’re not getting to that second level.
Another way to approach this is the collaboration that we have with our colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin, (Drs Halil Berberoglu and Tom Murphy). Our Surface Attached Bioreactor (SABR) is a growing system where algal cells are attached to a substrate and have only a thin water film pulling through the system by evaporation. That way the cells can pull CO2 directly from the atmosphere rather than having to pay for CO2 to be bubbled in. SABR acts like an artificial leaf and supports high levels of growth with far less water, than conventional systems. Water is a precious commodity, and we’ve been excited about the SABR system that we have the patent application in on. It’s been shown, under best case conditions to date, to grow algae up to 4 times faster using 25 times less water. That’s of interest for a space station because mass is a huge consideration, but we would like to see if that could also be useful for terrestrial applications for those same reasons, in that case, it would be a question of whether we could get it to the needed scale. The system is also appropriate for growth of a much wider variety of cell types, from fungi and bacteria to stem cells due to the specific environments it creates and the ability to have so much control over the rate of light, water and nutrients delivered to cells and the removal of wastes as well. Thinking this way about being more economical with our water, and other resource inputs and outputs will optimize for the cells and conserve resources, and so that’s a perfect example to me of where understanding the biology and working with engineers to optimize that could have some really beneficial outcomes.
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