A&M-led study uses AI technology to produce algae as biofuel | Texas A&M
Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientists are using artificial intelligence technology to produce algae for biofuel at an all-time high.
This research is led by Joshua Yuan, AgriLife researcher, professor and chair of synthetic biology and renewable products at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, according to AgriLife Today. The research was published in January in Nature Communications.
Yuan said these findings make seaweed competitive as a biofuel product. He added that his team uses AI technology to predict the best inoculation concentration and the best time to harvest to allow the cell to maximize its use of light and minimize its mutual shadowing.
“There are many applications of this [research]”, said Yuan. “At present, the biofuel algae industry is focusing on high-value cosmetics due to the high price of the algae biomass produced. With this technology at present, what we can achieve is around $281 per dry ton of algae biomass.To give you a reference, this makes it more competitive with the price of coal.Coal is used for the production of ethanol and it is much cheaper than soybean prices because the cyanobacterium also has a high protein content.
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The research study produced three impactful results, Yuan said. The first is a way to reduce the cost of harvesting to efficiently harvest algal biomass.
“Basically, we were able to engineer a cyanobacterial cell surface to produce a high protein content called limonene,” Yuan said. “This limonene makes the cell surface hydrophobic, and then the cell starts to precipitate.”
Second, Yuan said he and his team used AI technology to predict the best time to inoculate the cyanobacterium and then actually control the living conditions to allow the cyanobacteria to continue to grow at maximum rates. .
“Our technology would use AI technology to predict the best inoculation concentration and the best time to harvest to allow the cell to maximize its use of light and minimize its mutual shadowing,” Yuan said. “Our technology overcomes this problem. We provide self-sedimentation, so you can trigger it to settle on its own. This will allow a much cheaper harvest.
Yuan added, “We first discovered the self-sedimentation harvesting technology, and then we [said], ‘OK, how can we use this technology to address growth limitations?’ Algae growth is limited by light penetration. So we [said], ‘OK, we can use the latest model to predict the path of light penetration.’ Moreover, we can use the lighting conditions to predict that there are two patterns. To predict growth, we use these two models. We can basically simulate, this is the concentration we want to inoculate the cells, this is the concentration we want to harvest, and then we can, at the time we want to harvest, we can trigger that harvesting technology.
Third, Yuan added that he and his team had achieved an all-time high in biomass productivity at around 43.3 grams per square meter per day. For reference, Yuan said the Department of Energy had a target of 25 grams per square meter per day, noting that his team’s output was about 70% above that mark.
Limiting factors in the team’s research include productivity and the cost of harvesting, Yuan said.
“The problem with any photosynthesis system is that it depends on light,” Yuan said. “For algae… they all have the same problem. It’s a dilemma, if you think about it. When it gets too high of a concentration, the light will be limited. If the cell concentration is high, light will not penetrate and algae will grow on the surface and the solution will not penetrate light. It’s a big problem. And then, if you have too low a concentration, then the growth productivity is too low. There is therefore a fundamental dilemma on how to improve light penetration to improve cell growth.
The study did not initially receive federal funding, Yuan said. Instead, the research was funded by a donation from John Hood, A&M Class of 1990, and his wife, Sally, A&M Class of 1992. As of last October, Yuan said the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management Department of Energy had invested $2 million for AgriLife’s Research to work with the Southern Company to use the technology to capture flue gases from power plants. It will end in September 2024.
“We hope research can go into the field to enable cheaper use of carbon peptides to enable algae biofuel and algae bioproduct for animal feed and things like that,” Yuan said.