Diatoms are tiny marine life forms that have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Now a team from Oregon State University believes that they could be used to make biofuel production from algae truly cost-effective, as they can simultaneously produce other valuable products such as semiconductors, biomedical products and even health foods.

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The team from Oregon State University believes that these microscopic lifeforms will be able to turn some of the cheapest, most abundant materials on Earth (such as silicon and nitrates) into a wide range of useable products – and the only thing they need is sunlight, water and CO2. The team has just received a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to test their theory.

The team’s concept is based around a theory known as “photosynthetic biorefinery”, wherein sand, fertilizer, sunlight and saltwater can be used to produce fuel and materials for electronics. At the heart of the theory are tiny single-celled microstructures that form the basis for much of the marine food chain, and they also cycle carbon dioxide out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

“This NSF program is intended to support long-range concepts for a sustainable future, but in fact we’re demonstrating much of the science behind these technologies right now,” said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor and head of theSchool of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. “We have shown how diatoms can be used to produce semiconductor materials, chitin fibers for biomedical applications, or the lipids needed to make biofuels,” he said. “We believe that we can produce all of these products in one facility at the same time and move easily from one product to the other.”

Diatoms could bring down the cost of producing biofuels, increasing their viability as a renewable fuel source. “Regular algae don’t make everything that diatoms can make,” Rorrer said. “This is the only organism we know of that can create organized structures at the nano-level and naturally produce such high-value products. With the right components, they will make what you want them to make.”

+ Oregon State University

Images: Wikimedia Commons and U.S. Navy