According to Texas AgriLife Research scientists in Corpus Christi, microalgae may be the next cash crop. There are an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 species of microscopic freshwater and marine microalgae, yet only 35,000 species have been described. Researchers around the globe are trying to discover the best algae species for producing biofuels.
“It’s a huge, untapped source of fuel, food, feed, pharmaceuticals and even pollution-busters,” said Dr. Carlos Fernandez, a crop physiologist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi. He is studying the physiological responses of microalgae to the environment.
Fernandez said researchers are only beginning to scratch the surface of discovering algae’s secrets. Yet he believes farmers will one day soon be growing microalgae on marginal land that won’t compete with fertile farmland or for fresh water. One of the secret’s that needs to be unlocked is how to most effectively grow algae. Therefore, Fernandez constructed a microalgae physiology laboratory to study how algae is affected by temperature, salinity, nutrients, light levels, and carbon dioxide.
“We have four bioreactors in which we grow microalgae to determine the basic physiological responses that affect its growth,” explained Fernandez. “We will then integrate these responses into a simulator model, a tool we can use in the management of larger, outdoor systems.”
The study is also looking to find algae that can produce large amounts of lipids or fats, that are converted to biofuels such as biodiesel or biojet fuel. In addition, the research team, that includes members from Texas AgriLife Mariculture labs in Flour Bluff, are looking at a residue that remains after the lipids are extracted as a source of animal feed. Finally, they will also evaluate algae as a source of fertilizer for soil.
Fermandez said Corpus Christi is the perfect place to conduct the research for several reasons including access to seawater to grow the microalgae, large acres of marginal land and lower evaporation rates than in arid areas so water requirements are reduced. In addition, he noted that local power plants and oil refineries are good CO2 sources and there is a good network of higher education institutions in the region.