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The search for 'green' energy

By Kyle Schut '13
August 8, 2012

Associate Professor of Chemistry Greg Muth (bottom right) and St. Olaf students (clockwise from bottom left) Allison Brandt '13, Magnus Olofsson '13, and Zijie Xia '14 are interested in how algae store energy — and whether one day it could be used to power the modern world.

This summer Associate Professor of Chemistry Greg Muth and three student researchers are studying how algae store energy.

Their goal is to contribute to broader research that examines whether algae — the stuff of green pond scum — might one day be turned into diesel fuel.

"There is a long way to go to make this economically realistic, but that is why this research is so exciting," Muth says.

As part of St. Olaf College's Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, Muth is working this summer with student researchers Allison Brandt '13, Zijie Xia '14, and Magnus Olofsson '13. Together they're looking specifically at the tendency of algae to store energy as fats rather than reproduce when deprived of nitrogen. This phenomenon is of interest to both the biofuels industry and ecologists studying how organisms adapt to their environment.

Muth has high hopes that energy harvested from algae cultures could potentially be used to power the modern world, pointing out that today's predominant sources of renewable transportation fuels (corn and soybeans) compete directly with the food supply. Algae oil might someday be a cheaper alternative, with one acre of algae yielding from 5,000 to 15,000 gallons of oil that can be used to make biodiesel — more than 100 times the yield of an acre of soybeans.

Although he's long been interested in renewable energy, Muth began studying algae after Ben Auch '12 approached him four years ago and proposed a research project examining whether the microorganism could be turned into diesel fuel.

The photo on the left captures the algal species scenedesmus quadricauda using visible light, while the photo on the right captures the same algae using a fluorescent light and a special stain that reveal the prescence of stored fats (the bright green dots). Photos provided by Greg Muth.

A growing stream of students interested in the topic has helped fuel the continued research — and Muth says their insight and energy has been important to keeping the research fresh and innovative.

"A researcher working alone can bog down and become stagnant. By working as a team, ideas stay fresh, pitfalls are avoided, and productivity stays high," says Muth. "Students are the ideal 'fertilizer' to keep the lab growing."

And Muth's students have enjoyed working on a project that they can help drive.

"With so many fields focusing more on team-based work, it is awesome to have an undergraduate experience in a similar setting," Brandt says, noting that she's also enjoying contributing to a research topic that may play an important role in alleviating the energy crisis.

Magnus Olofsson '13 was drawn to the project for similar reasons.

"I have an interest in cars and in renewable energy, so being able to work on a project that is doing research for biofuels was a perfect fit for me," he says.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.