Cyanobacteria-Based Biofuel: an Innovative Platform for Clean Energy Production

Viji Sitther, Behnam Tabatabai, Somayeh Gharaie Fathabad, , UCS | January 30, 2018, 4:46 pm EDT
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Burning fossil fuels is a major driver of climate change with more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide released annually, leading to increased frequency of natural disasters and health concerns. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources is a key strategy to mitigate this harm.

Biological approaches to generate clean, green energy from renewable sources offer great promise for sustainable fuel production, but first- and second-generation biofuel crops compete for farmland, which limits their potential. By contrast, photosynthetic microorganisms, including algae and cyanobacteria, offer great promise as third-generation biofuel agents without the drawbacks of today’s biofuels.

We are excited to announce that the Sitther Biofuel Research Group at Morgan State University has developed a technology to generate a cost-effective biofuel using a model cyanobacterium. The team, consisting of graduate students Dr. Behnam Tabatabai and Ms. Somayeh Gharaie Fathabad, led by Dr. Viji Sitther, has developed strategies to reduce fossil fuel overuse. With a short life cycle, greenhouse gas fixation ability, and high lipid production capacity, we use cyanobacteria as an efficient biofuel platform. Carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuel and industrial emissions can be captured and used by these organisms efficiently. As with other algae-based fuels, we expect a 68% reduction in total carbon dioxide emissions as these organisms absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Our research group has engineered salt tolerance in a cyanobacterium (Fremyella diplosiphon) which produces oil (lipids) in its cells. The team’s innovation has been successful and the technology is now patented. With limited precious fresh water for agriculture and human needs, we will make use of naturally abundant sea water for biofuel production. The organism is now able to grow in 35 g/L salt, the salinity of sea water. With sea water containing 70 different nutrients to support its growth and using the sun’s energy, the technology will be cost-effective while minimizing fresh water input into the cultivation system.

Targeting large-scale commercialization, the team is now progressing to make the biofuel even more cost-effective. Our goal is to enhance cellular oil content using a novel technique based on cDNA overexpression, in addition to salt tolerance. Fuel produced using this technology will be environment-friendly and will make full use of Maryland’s location, with its access to the Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Seaboard.

For background information about cyanobacteria as a biofuel technology, please visit David Babson’s blog on algae.

Viji Sitther is an Associate Professor at the department of Biology at Morgan State University. She was a graduate research faculty at the Fort Valley State University prior to joining Morgan. Behnam Tabatabai is a recent PhD graduate and Somayeh Gharaie Fathabad is a doctoral candidate in the Bio-environmental Sciences.

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  • neroden

    Well, cyanobacteria are believed to have created the original oxygen atmosphere by removing CO2 from the atmosphere… so they may be our best bet for pulling CO2 out of the air. That said, we have to stop burning fossil fuels entirely.

  • solodoctor

    How encouraging this news is! Keep us posted on future developments, please.