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Algae as pollution control and biofuel

Mar. 14, 2012 — The tiny, plant-like Heterosigma akashiwo is too small to see with the naked eye, but the microscopic algae may pack a big environmental punch. University of Delaware researchers are studying whether the species can neutralize harmful smokestack emissions – and also serve as a source of eco-friendly biofuel.

The project is an outgrowth of biochemist Kathryn Coyne’s study into the ecology of H. akashiwo, which thrives in Delaware and worldwide. Coyne and her postdoctoral fellow, Jennifer Stewart, found that the algae contain a special enzyme with the unusual ability to detoxify nitric oxide, one of multiple contaminants released through industrial chimneys as flue gas.

Based on the discovery of that enzyme, Coyne and Stewart decided to explore the possibility of recruiting the algae for pollution control. They knew that other scientists were trying to use different types of algae to reduce emissions of another flue gas component, carbon dioxide, since algae need carbon dioxide to grow.