KASARGOD: A team of 14 scientists from Korea, Spain and India discovered a key to increase biofuel from algae by 30%. Their "path-breaking" findings were published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Plant Physiology in May.
According to the paper, the scientists unearthed a "gatekeeper" which regulates biofuel yields in algae. "This metabolic gatekeeper in algae is akin to what Heimdall does in the Avengers, regulating who enters Asgard," said Rishiram Ramanan, the lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Central University of Kerala.
Dr Ramanan said they knock down the gatekeeper -- called the phosphoinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) -- and found that the lipid in mutant algae increased by 20% to 30%. Lipids are fats or natural oils, from which biodiesel is produced.
"The discovery has huge ramification in the global research for biofuel from algae," he said.
Apart from CUK, the research was done at Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology (KRIBB at Daejeon and at Universidad de Sevilla at Sevilla in Spain.
Algae has been touted as a third generation biofuel. "Second generation biofuels such as sugarcane and corn would have a direct impact on food prices especially in populous countries," he said.
But there are technological bottlenecks. After investing $100 million in four years, ExxonMobil withdrew from a joint venture in 2013, saying algae fuel is "probably further" than 25 years away from commercial viability. "The cost factor is what is keeping biofuel from algae still in the lab. And our study has obvious biotechnological and evolutionary implications in cutting down cost," he said.
According to an article published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews in May 2012, 58,700 to 136,900 litres of oil can be produced from algae from one hectare in a year. "The yield depends on the lipid content in the algae. We just increased it by 20% to 30% without changing any down stream process," Dr Ramanan said.