Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a common gas. It’s what we breathe out on every exhale. It’s what makes our favourite soft drinks fizzy. But it’s also one of the main by-products of burning fossil fuels. The build-up of CO2 in our environment from human activities, like burning fossil fuels, has many harmful effects including global warming and ocean acidification. Much research is currently devoted to capturing this excess CO2 and turning it into something useful.
But plants already do this! Through photosynthesis, plants and other photosynthetic organisms, use sunlight and CO2 to produce the fuel they need to live and grow. They’ve had thousands of years to perfect these processes. Why mess with a good thing? That’s why Prof. David Sinton from the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto is using algae to turn CO2 into fuel.
Algae are photosynthetic, just like plants, and some of the things they produce are fatty acid and lipids, that are similar to the fuels and oils we use to power our world today. They can also be grown on wastelands, avoiding the economic and environmental impacts that arise from using food crops for biomass production.
The trick is in keeping the algae happy. “Can we give them the wavelengths they need, can we give them the fluids they need, the CO2 they need… so they’re productive?” asks Prof. Sinton. His research lab is developing improved photobioreactor architectures for optimal production of fuel from algae.
As a Canadian scientist, Prof. Sinton feels that we need to demonstrate leadership in reducing CO2 levels through new technologies. “CO2 is a global issue. It doesn’t respect boundaries or tariffs…” If one country produces more CO2, it will affect everyone, even the countries that are trying their hardest to reduce CO2 levels. “It really is a question of how can we work together.”
Also, get up close and personal with Prof. Sinton on Researchers in Reality.