United Arab Emirates UniversityHow researchers are using algae to engineer a greener future

How researchers are using algae to engineer a greener future

Algae research

By using extant scientific knowledge, the abundantly available resource of algae, and innovative bioengineering, researchers at UAEU can produce clean energy and preserve water resources

The scientific community has long recognised hydrogen’s properties as a source of clean energy. When consumed in a fuel cell, it produces only water. There are many ways to engineer hydrogen as a fuel, such as electrolysis and natural gas reforming. Another is to use an organism such as algae to split water into its constituent parts. But this method rests on a tantalising scientific paradox: for the algae to produce hydrogen, oxygen must be absent from the process.

Ashraf Aly Hassan, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), is using innovative bioengineering techniques that rest on decades-old scientific knowledge to try to solve this riddle.

“I have tried to utilise very old information from the 1930s,” Dr Aly Hassan says. “If you make sure that there is no oxygen, the algae will keep growing and it will produce hydrogen. However, controlling the algae in an environment where there is no oxygen is almost impossible because the algae uses photosynthesis and, by default, while it is doing anything, it is producing oxygen. This oxygen is blocking the hydrogen.”

The solution, he believes, lies in finding a use for the oxygen – and Dr Aly Hassan has one in mind. He says algae presents many opportunities for scientists looking to augment existing systems and make them more sustainable. One such system is wastewater treatment, which requires a lot of oxygen. “I thought if we could combine both processes together, with the bacteria that needs the oxygen together with the algae that produces oxygen that we don’t need, we can be resource-sharing and benefit everybody,” he explains. “The bacteria will be happy because it has oxygen. The algae will be happy to produce hydrogen because there is no oxygen.”

Initial results have been promising, with a total production of 1,300ml of hydrogen per litre of wastewater – about 10 times greater than any results already reported. As is often the case with scientific breakthroughs, many of the solutions are found in nature, and there are scientific principles to build upon and adapt. “It is always putting a new hat on an old face,” says Dr Aly Hassan. Sometimes, science must bide its time. Dr Aly Hassan believes we could have arrived at this moment 40 years ago, but the support for research into sustainable fuels was stymied by special interest groups. A large part of his research efforts focuses on using algae for more efficient and eco-friendly desalination systems to provide fresh water for irrigation and industry.

In the United Arab Emirates, there is a great appetite for applying science and introducing new technologies to the market. This is why Dr Aly Hassan moved to the country. He collaborates with his former colleagues at the University of Nebraska and with UAEU colleagues of various disciplines, and is now scaling up his research into biodesalination and hydrogen production with the goal of developing it for industry. “I am not saying we are changing the world,” he says. “But we are taking baby steps.”

Read an example of Dr Aly Hassan’s work on biodesalination here.

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