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AI Predicts Algae Potential as an Alternative Energy Source

Algae biofuel is regarded as one of the ultimate renewable energy solutions, but commercialization is hampered by growth limitations caused by mutual shading and high harvest costs.

Shivam Dwivedi
Algae in Pond
Algae in Pond

Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientists are using artificial intelligence to set a new world record for producing algae as a reliable, cost-effective source of biofuel for jet aircraft and other transportation needs. The research is being led by Joshua Yuan, Ph.D., an AgriLife Research scientist, professor and chair of Synthetic Biology and Renewable Products in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology.

Bin Long, a graduate student in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, is part of the project team, as is Bart Fischer, Ph.D., co-director of the Texas A&M Agricultural and Food Policy Center and the Texas A&M Department of Agricultural Economics; Henry Bryant, Ph.D., Department of Agricultural Economics; and Yining Zeng, Ph.D., staff scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Resolving Algae Limitations as a Biofuel

"The relatively low yield and high harvesting cost have hampered the commercialization of algal biofuel," Yuan explained. "Both the low yield and the limited light penetration were caused by poor cultivation dynamics."

Overcoming these obstacles could allow viable algal biofuels to reduce carbon emissions, mitigate climate change, reduce reliance on petroleum, and transform the bio-economy, according to Yuan.

Yuan has previously succeeded in converting corn stubble, grasses, and mesquite into biodegradable, lightweight materials and bioplastics. His most recent project predicts algae light penetration, growth, and optimal density using a patented artificial intelligence advanced learning model. The prediction model enables continuous harvesting of synthetic algae using hydroponics to maintain rapid growth at the optimal density for best light availability.

"Algae can be used as an alternative energy source in a variety of industries, including biofuel and jet fuel," Yuan explained. "For this industry, algae is a viable alternative fuel source. It is an alternative feedstock for bioethanol refineries that do not require pre-treatment. It is less expensive than coal or natural gas. It also allows for more efficient carbon capture and utilization."

According to Yuan, algae can also be used as a source of animal feed. AgriLife Research has previously investigated algae as a source of protein for livestock.

Algae as Renewable Energy

Algae biofuel is regarded as one of the ultimate renewable energy solutions, but commercialization is hampered by growth limitations caused by mutual shading and high harvest costs.

"We overcome these challenges by using machine learning to inform the design of a semi-continuous algal cultivation (SAC) to sustain optimal cell growth while minimizing mutual shading," he said.

Yuan stated that he is employing an aggregation-based sedimentation strategy in order to achieve low-cost biomass harvesting and cost-effective SAC.

Despite significant potential and extensive efforts, the commercialization of algal biofuel has been hampered by limited sunlight penetration, poor cultivation dynamics, relatively low yield, and a lack of cost-effective industrial harvest methods, according to Yuan. "This technology has been shown to be affordable and to help propel algae as a true alternative energy source," he said.

(Source: Texas A&M AgriLife Communications)

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