Scientists in Canada and India are proposing a surprising new solution to
the global energy crisis - "milking" oil from the tiny, single-cell algae known
as diatoms, renowned for their intricate, beautifully sculpted shells that resemble
fine lacework. Their report appears online in the current issue of the ACS'
bi-monthly journal Industrial + Engineering Chemistry Research.
Richard Gordon, T. V. Ramachandra, Durga Madhab Mahapatra, and Karthick Band
note that some geologists believe that much of the world’s crude oil originated
in diatoms, which produce an oily substance in their bodies. Barely one-third
of a strand of hair in diameter, diatoms flourish in enormous numbers in oceans
and other water sources. They die, drift to the seafloor, and deposit their
shells and oil into the sediments. Estimates suggest that live diatoms could
make 10-200 times as much oil per acre of cultivated area compared to oil seeds,
"We propose ways of harvesting oil from diatoms, using biochemical engineering
and also a new solar panel approach that utilizes genetically modifiable aspects
of diatom biology, offering the prospect of "milking" diatoms for
sustainable energy by altering them to actively secrete oil products,"
the scientists say. "Secretion by and milking of diatoms may provide a
way around the puzzle of how to make algae that both grow quickly and have a
very high oil content."