Michigan State University scores $1 million algae biofuels R&D program with ExxonMobil

In Michigan, a new $1 million relationship between Michigan State University and ExxonMobil will expand research designed to progress the fundamental science required to advance algae-based fuels.

David Kramer, MSU’s John Hannah Distinguished Professor in Photosynthesis and Bioenergetics at the MSU-DOE Plant and Research Laboratory, says that the overall goal of the partnership is to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis in microalgae to produce biofuels and bioproducts.

“Photosynthesis is the biological process that plants and algae use to store solar energy in biomass. It is how all our food is made, and we would starve without it,” said Kramer, who is leading the grant with Ben Lucker with the PRL and Joe Weissman, Distinguished Scientific Associate at ExxonMobil.

The project will take advantage of these natural variations as well as a suite of new technologies developed by the Kramer lab at PRL that allow rapid, high-throughput testing of photosynthetic efficiency of many algal lines under simulated growth conditions. One of these technologies, developed through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program) is a matrix of specialized chambers, called the environmental PhotoBioReactor, that allow algae to be studied in detail under simulated production environments.

The second Kramer lab technology, developed with support from the Photosynthetic Systems and Physical Biosciences programs at the DOE (Basic Energy Sciences program), is called PhotosynQ and is a network of portable sensors called MultispeQ that are being used by many researchers around the world to probe photosynthesis. These sensors allow the Kramer lab to measure the photosynthetic processes in many algal cultures at the same time under different conditions to learn why some strains are more efficient than others.

“Combining these technologies will allow us to determine which algae are the most efficient under a range of conditions,” Kramer said. “Then we can use a different set of technologies to figure out why they do better and which genes are responsible.”

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