The Lindbergh Foundation has awarded a 2010 grant to Stephanie Mixson, of North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, N.C., for her project, “Conserving Energy and Freshwater by Harnesssing Novel Saltwater Algae as a Biofuel Source.”
“To continue to be viable, the aviation industry must solve the problem of carbon emissions,” said John King, co-chairman of King Schools, Inc., and board member of the Lindbergh Foundation. “The work Ms. Mixson is conducting, with support from the Lindbergh Foundation, offers one of the best hopes for a solution to this critical problem.”
Mixson is a Graduate Research Assistant at the Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology at North Carolina Sate University, where she is studying plant biology, with a minor in biotechnology. She is a 2008 graduate of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., with a B.S. degree in biology.
As Mixson points out, two of the most important natural resources supporting modern civilization are oil and freshwater. Worldwide, there are already freshwater shortages and no substitutes for most freshwater uses including growing agricultural crops, manufacturing goods, and safeguarding human health. Furthermore, freshwater is being used to make fuel. Petroleum-based fuels are also being rapidly depleted, so scientists are turning to renewable biofuels. However, most attention has been on freshwater microalgae, which would further drain freshwater resources.
Mixson’s research will focus on a novel candidate for biofuel production, including fuel that will meet specifications for Jet A-1 and JP-8, using the saltwater microalga Dunaliella spp.
“One of the primary goals of this project is to produce aviation biofuels using microalgae,” said Mixson. Dr. William Roberts, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at North Carolina State University, explained that the emissions from this fuel would not add additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere because the feedstocks pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to grow and by emitting less particulate matter, the radiation balance is affected in a positive way. “Microalgae is probably 7–10 years away from being commercially viable, and other oil crops, such as camelina or jatropha, could be ready in as little as three years at the scale of 10 million gallons per year using our process, with aggressive funding,” said Roberts. The best news is that competitive pricing, similar to petroleum at approximately $2.50 per gallon, is planned.
Using the technique of synchrotron-based microspectroscopy, Mixson hopes to be able to rapidly screen samples of several strains of four species of this saltwater alga to determine how much lipid production is possible. The goal is to optimize Dunaliella spp. for production of lipids as a ‘drop-in’ renewable replacement for oil. As an added benefit, these marine microalgae can be mass-cultured in minimal space with readily available saltwater, and existing petroleum refineries that are located along coastal areas can be used. This pilot study will serve as the foundation for further studies to genetically modify Dunaliella spp. strains to produce even higher amounts of lipids, creating a renewable source of biofuel that can help reduce net carbon emissions and be a viable alternative to the rising costs of petroleum-based fuel with minimal freshwater demand.
Mixson received one of eight Lindbergh grants awarded so far this year. She was chosen from 166 applicants from around the world. Lindbergh Grants are made in amounts up to $10,580, a symbolic amount representing the cost of building Charles Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, in 1927. To date, more $3 million has been awarded to 310 researchers.
“Today’s students will share this planet with more than 8 billion people. If we are to sustain our species and our planet, it is imperative that we make full use of the one expandable resource available to us: human intelligence,” said Gregg Maryniak, Chairman of the Grants Committee and Vice Chairman of the Foundation. “The Lindbergh Grants program attracts researchers who are passionate about the environment and about finding solutions to protect and sustain our world.”
The annual deadline for all Lindbergh Grant applications is in mid-June for funding the following year. Anyone interested in applying for this grant will find information and a downloadable application at: LindberghFoundation.org