Beyond Biofuel: Expanding the Possibilities from Algae Extraction
The potential value of an industry based on extracting fuel from algae could be even greater than expected by adding dietary supplements such as DHA and lutein to its list of products. Shulin Chen, professor in the WSU Department of Biological Systems Engineering, presented this innovative idea in a successful application for a Grand Challenges Explorations grant funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation proposing sources of low-cost micronutrients for infants in developing countries.
Working from the discovery that molecules of algal oil closely resemble oils of energy-dense fossil fuel, Chen is researching ways to create motor vehicle fuel from algae. As with many groundbreaking technologies, economic feasibility can be a barrier to large-scale implementation.
“DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, is often extracted from fish and sold at a considerable cost as a health supplement,” said Chen. But fish don’t produce DHA; they absorb it from algae that they feed on.
DHA is a primary component of the human brain, skin, and eye. A deficiency in DHA can result in low birth weight and is implicated in heart ailments. “Many areas in India have low birth weight,” said Chen. “DHA supplements can help.”
Lutein, another compound found in algae and plants, is concentrated in the macula of the eye, and studies suggest it serves a protective role. BCC Research, a market forecasting organization, predicts the annual growth rate of the lutein market at 3.6 percent through 2018.
Ensuring the Practicality of a Novel Biofuel Resource
“By extracting DHA and other high-value co-products from algae, biofuel plants can generate more income and become economically competitive,” said Chen. “But first we need to find efficient, environmentally benign extraction techniques.” Currently known extraction processes involve hydrocarbon solvents, which are not favorable for health supplements, and supercritical carbon dioxide, which is prohibitively expensive. “We are looking at some possibilities for low-cost extraction techniques, and are generating preliminary data on the processes,” he said.
Chen’s confidence that reliance on biofuel from algae will eventually be a reality is also supported by promising findings about the aquatic organism’s minimal cultivation requirements. Farmers can convert non-arable land to algae production, so food crops do not need to be displaced fuel. In addition, algae have higher growth rates than plants, offering superior production efficiencies. And the remarkable biomass can grow in water that is not suitable for human consumption.
For more information on Chen’s bioprocessing and bioproducts engineering research, see http://bit.ly/wsuchen.
Brown Marmorated Stink Bug Continues to Spread
Stowing away in packaging and transported by ships, trucks, RVs, and other vehicles, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug is moving into Washington. The pest, a native of Asia that causes severe crop damage, was first spotted in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s. The bug has since spread to most of the other 48 states. The pest established itself in the Vancouver, Washington area in 2010–“with pretty good-sized populations,” according to Jay Brunner, a WSU entomologist and director of the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.
Brunner said that native stink bugs, while occasionally a problem for agriculture, are localized and don’t reproduce in orchards. Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) does reproduce in orchards, so both immature and adult individuals can be present at any time.
BMSB feeds on a wide range of crops, Brunner said. In addition to tree fruit, it’ll feed on grapes, corn, soybeans, and many other agricultural crops and ornamental plants. Tree fruit and other producers in the eastern U.S. experienced severe crop damage from BMSB in 2010, Brunner said.
In response, a nationwide team of scientists and Extension professionals, including from WSU and neighboring states, has been working to combat the pest. “The team is focused on a spectrum of issues,” Brunner said. “Researchers are looking at the insect’s basic biology, as well as developing attractants, monitoring systems, and determining what pesticides work and aren’t so harsh that they eleiminate existing biocontrol systems.”
Biocontrols – or using good bugs to prey upon pest species – is a major component of the suite of pest management tools used in Washington fields and orchards. “Chemicals that we know can control BMSB are broad-spectrum toxicants that severely suppress natural enemies of pests,” Brunner said. Using these chemicals would mean drastic changes to existing–and highly successful–pest management programs.
“We can hope that [Brown Marmorated Stink Bug] doesn’t adapt to the arid climate of eastern Washington,” Brunner said. But two stink bugs were found in the Yakima area in 2012, so it is clearly moving or being brought into the area. “Riparian areas along the Yakima River will most certainly be good habitats for the BMSB,” he added.
Brunner urges people to learn to identify BMSB and to distinguish it from, native stink bugs. “We’ve trained Master Gardener volunteers to identify this insect, so when people find it in homes and gardens, it’ll help us track its movement,” he said.
Learn more about BMSB, including a quick guide to its identification and what is being done to control its spread, at http://www.stopbmsb.org/.
Concern for Future Food Informs WSU Grad Student’s Trip to Nation’s Capital
When she saw an email announcing a chance to win a travel grant that would take her to the US Department of Agriculture’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum Student Diversity Program, WSU food science graduate student Megan Waldrop thought, “It’s a long shot… but what the heck.”
To win, she had to write a short essay on what she considered the greatest challenge facing agriculture. Waldrop said she’d just finished a 20-page paper on sustainable agriculture—could she adapt an idea from that paper and whittle it down to a mere 500 words? Focusing on climate change, she wrote a succinct essay, then gathered the other materials required to be considered for the grant, including a letter of recommendation from the dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS).
When the USDA announced the winners, Waldrop said, “I was very surprised–pleasantly surprised–to find out that I had won. I never get these things!”
Waldrop traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the Forum and tour the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service headquarters in Arlington. “The forum seemed like a great chance to learn more about food policy,” she said. “I’m really interested in food security, sustainability, and the connections between health and access to food.”
The forum is two intense days of discussions about those and other issues, including the challenges facing a food system that needs to feed an ever-burgeoning population.
Waldrop has the educational background to both benefit from, and contribute to, the forum. She took her undergraduate degree in economics at U.C. Berkeley. At WSU, she is working on a master’s degree in food science, focusing on sensory aspects of sweeteners.
“We use an ‘electronic tongue’–a tool that has digital taste sensors that lets us profile different tastes presented in a solution.”
Waldrop’s background also includes a stint at the Culinary Institute of America, at both the Hyde Park, New York, and Napa, Calif. campuses, and work in the restaurant industry as a pastry chef. “I love food,” she said; “maybe too much!”
This scholar is also hungry for further education. Waldrop plans to continue at WSU in a doctoral program in economics. “I’m still figuring out my future goals, but I’m looking at the USDA’s Economic Research Service as a possible career avenue.” There, she’d be able to pursue her interest in policy decisions backed with sound, science-based information.
As for the challenge to agriculture, Waldrop said that climate change is “all encompassing. It was hard to pick one topic to focus on in that short essay, but climate seemed like a good focal point for addressing a lot of issues.”
Focus is good. As the dean of CAHNRS wrote in his letter of recommendation for Waldrop, “She’s like a rocket looking for direction. Megan is going to make a significant impact whatever she chooses to do.”