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Meet the algae

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Algae are an absolutely amazing group of diverse organisms. Even though they’re very small, they actually contribute hugely to the fixation of carbon dioxide, that is the taking of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using sunlight to turn it into sugars. And in the process they give out oxygen, so actually fifty percent of the oxygen that we breathe comes from these little organisms. they’re as important as the rainforests.

I’m Alison Smith and I’m the Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. The plants that we study mainly in my laboratory are algae. They have very recently been identified as a potential resource for producing chemicals and in particular for producing biodiesel.

We work on biological solar cells. We use algae and lights and the power of photosynthesis to generate electricity for electronic devices.

I’m interested in which genes are important in making lipids that we can use for biodiesel. The diesel we have today was actually made from algae that were in the sea millions of years ago, so if we can speed up that process by producing biodiesel from algae that we can grow today, then we don’t have to extract the fossil fuels from the sea beds.

We can potentially grow algae on non-arable land and the fuel that we can derive from the algae can be sustainable and carbon-neutral.

In order to make a big impact on biodiesel production you’d need to grow algae in very big amounts and really we need to understand the interactions of these organisms with their environment in order to be able to grow them at scale and in order to be able to deal with problems, for example, with contamination.

If you compare it to modern agriculture, we’ve had thousands and thousands of years to learn how to grow crops on a large scale and we just don’t have that experience with algae and nor do we have the fundamental understanding of algal biology, algal physiology, their interactions with other species. And that’s why we’re interested in it and that’s why we study it.

One of the things that my laboratory were investigating is to see whether if we grow the algae together with their bacteria which provide the vitamin, then this actually facilitates growing them and we’re providing a sort of ready-made community and that will stop bad bacteria from contaminating the cultures.

Now we have the opportunity to be more creative and more innovative.

The algae is really the next generation of fuels, so it’s very primary research at the moment but hopefully in the next ten years we will see algae fuels in the pumps.

I’m really, really excited to see how this field progresses in the future, because I think there’s lots and lots of potential.

I think that there are - algae are fantastic resource that can be exploited, not just for biodiesel but for all sorts of things. Really we’re just starting, we’re just scraping the surface now. I hope that these beautiful and very diverse organisms become much more widely known and appreciated.