Algae fuel development could replace 17 percent of oil imports

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Micro-algae fuels powered by sunlight could be one way to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign energy and carbon dioxide emissions.

Truman Fellow Anne Ruffing looks at a flask of cyanobacteria with precipitated fatty acid floating on top. (Credit: Randy Montoya)

In fact, President Obama has advocated for investments in algae fuel development, citing the replacement of up to 17 percent of the oil the U.S. now imports for transportation.

Sandia National Laboratories Truman Fellow Anne Ruffing has engineered two strains of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) to produce free fatty acids -- a precursor to liquid fuels -- and found that the process cuts the bacteria's production potential.

"Even if algae are not the end-term solution, I think they can contribute to getting us there," Ruffing said. "Regardless of however you look at fossil fuels, they're eventually going to run out. We have to start looking to the future now and doing research that we'll need when the time comes."

Blue-green algae are easier to genetically manipulate than eukaryotic algae, the natural "oil"-producing photosynthetic microorganisms more commonly used for algal biofuels, and can be engineered to create a variety of target fuels.

"So I'm engineering the cell, then I'm trying to learn from the cell how to work with the cell to produce the fuel instead of trying to force it to produce something it doesn't want to produce," she said. "It is possible that there's a natural strain out there that could be a better option, so this is still pretty early research.There's a lot of exploration to do."

Yields from engineered strains are currently too low for large-scale production.

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