Teen's Biofuel Algae Wins $100,000 From Intel

A 17-year-old high school senior has developed a new strain of algae that could be used to produce biofuels.

Sara Volz, of Colorado Springs, Colo., won the grand prize in the Intel Science Talent Search on Tuesday, bringing home a $100,000 scholarship. Volz grew the algae for the competition under her bed.

Oil-rich algae is an interesting choice for biofuel. Burning the algae releases CO2 into the atmosphere just like fossil fuels, but growing the fuel also offsets these emissions because the plants absorb CO2 during photosynthesis, a process that also releases oxygen.

Using algae as a biofuel stands out as a better alternative to other biofuels like corn and sugar ethanol. Unlike the food-as-fuel energy sources, growing algae for fuel doesn’t take up precious food resources. But using algae could mean we don’t have to solve the energy crisis at the expense of the hungry world crisis.

However, growing algae for fuel is still costly, and a report from the U.S. National Research Council in October 2012 reported that creating enough fuel from the plants on a large scale would require unsustainable amounts of energy, water and fertilizer.

“Faced with today’s technology, to scale up any more is going to put really big demands on ... not only energy input, but water, land and the nutrients you need, like carbon dioxide, nitrate and phosphate,” Jennie Hunter-Cevera told Reuters in October. Hunter-Cevera is a microbial physiologist in charge of the committee that authored the report.

Previous attempts to create bio-fuel algae used genetic engineering methods to change the plant’s genome for higher oil production. But Volz used a simpler approach that persuaded her algae’s evolution by using an herbicide that killed any algae that produced low levels of an enzyme required for oil production in the plants. By doing this, Volz encouraged growth of the oil producing plants, while killing off the ones that didn’t make enough.

“I was trying to use guided evolution, so artificial selection, to isolate populations of algae cells with abnormally high oil content,” she told NBC News. “The idea is, if you introduce this chemical, you kill everything with really low oil production. What you are left with is a population of cells with very high oil production.”

Volz will use her scholarship for her studies at MIT, where she will enroll in the fall.

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