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Algaepalooza 2011 calls on citizen scientists

Dr. Terry Woodford Thomas of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center works with some young citizen scientists at Algaepalooza 2010. (Backyard Biofuels)
Dr. Terry Woodford Thomas of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center works with some young citizen scientists at Algaepalooza 2010. (Backyard Biofuels)

Algae, that very same stuff that turns aquarium walls and backyard fences green, are also a potent source of energy, and hold significant potential as a clean, renewable fuel source.  Algae were first investigated as a source of energy back in the 1970’s when high gas prices prompted an interest in alternative energies and the US Department of Energy created the Aquatic Species Program. That program was discontinued in 1996, but as oil costs have continued to rise and energy independence has reemerged as a national priority, researchers around the world, and many right here in St. Louis, are again focused on the potential of algal biofuels.

Most studies  done on algae are conducted with lab-grown species.  But, algae occur ubiquitously in nature, and that’s part of what makes them so attractive as a potential fuel source.  Dr. Terry Woodford Thomas, Director of Science Education and Outreach at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centersays, “We’re discovering new algae every day.  There may be as many as one million types out there. ”  

Indeed, undiscovered  types could  be hiding in plain sight in backyards across the region, especially this spring after unusually wet weather. That’s why researchers at the Center for Advanced Biofuel Systems at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centerhave partnered with the St. Louis Science Center to create Backyard Biofuels, a unique outreach program aimed at identifying potentially productive strains of local algae.

Backyard Biofuels'  Second Annual Algaepalooza will take place this Saturday, May 7th at the Life Science Lab at the St. Louis Science Center.  There, visitors will  have the opportunity to talk with research scientists about algae and about how to identify various types.  Then they’ll be sent home with a collection kit and a list of instructions. 

Last year, 100 citizen scientists collected algae samples from their home environments.  Matt Stevens, creator of the project, says he was surprised by what they found.

"We had no clue what to expect.  We wanted to test as many as we could. There were quite a few samples, ten percent, that  were extremely useable for biofuels.  These highly productive strains are not elusive.  There isn’t  just one. There is a lot of research that needs to happen” 

Though commercially viable fuel derived from algae may be a few years down the road, Stevens insists that the process is already here. " We know how to harvest oil from the algae.  It’s just a matter of getting it onto a large scale and getting that cost down to where it’s useable."

To listen to the entire conversation about algae, visit theSt. Louis on the Air archives.