Algae based biofuels are serious business these days. Serious enough that the U.S. Department of Energy recently bet $18 million in research grants on the viability of such fuels; a combination of universities and private companies will reap the benefits of that governmental largesse. Yet those big ticket researchers aren’t the only ones interested in, or actively working on algal biofuels; there’s Sara Volz too; as a 17 year old high school Junior, Volz won the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search, and the $100,000 Grand Prize that went along with it. She’s now continuing her studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), is “the nation’s oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competition. It honors exceptional high school seniors for their scientific research and their potential as future leaders in the scientific community.” Sara certainly epitomizes that kind of excellence. She worked her way up through a field of some 1,700 competitions to come away with her 2013 win, and algae based biofuels were her ticket.
Algae based biofuels have great promise, but also serious challenges. On the positive side, algae based fuel is environmentally responsible, capable of being converted into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, and even can provide viable by products, such as pet food, fertilizer, and feed stock. While all that sounds great, the cons are equally as momentous; as the research exists today, algae biofuels are much too expensive, and very sensitive to contamination. One of the key considerations, then, is the ability to generate more algae for less cost, and that’s where Sarah’s research really shines.
Sara found the challenges of algae biofuel too enticing to only pursue at school, so she literally built a research lab in her bedroom, in fact, under her loft bed. As her work progressed, she decided that waking and sleeping in synchronicity with her algae’s light/dark cycles was the best way to stay on top of her research, so that’s exactly what she did – talk about dedication to ones work!
Sara’s greatest insight was in the development of a stable, reproducible way to encourage the growth of specific algae that would produce the most oil. She employed ‘artificial selection’ to isolate and reproduce these desired algae. She achieved this by growing the algae in a medium that contained Sethoxydim, a cyclohexanedone family chemical that’s the active ingredient in many grass and weed killers. The Sethoxydim killed off algae that were poor producers of acetyl-CoA carboxylase, a enzyme critical to lipid synthesis. That elegant control meant that the algae that remained were particularly adept at producing substantial amounts of oil; that result quite possibly could mean commercially viable algae biofuel production in the not too distant future.
As noted, Sara has continued her research at MIT, and it’s evident that her passion hasn’t waned at all. She gave a very inspirational Ted Talk lecture that’s definitely worth watching.
Science is, without question, a vital component to straightening out all the challenges facing humans on earth in the 21st century. The best solutions, the ones that really have a chance of making a difference simply must have passion behind them; expertise isn’t enough. Sara Volz epitomizes all that is promising about the next generation of passionate, effective scientists.