Using photosynthetic microorganisms to convert sunlight and CO2 directly into sustainable fuels and products

Photosynthetic microorganisms capture sunlight energy and use it to fix CO2 into organic molecules.  Our PhotoBioReactor (PBR) Team focuses on means to grow and manage phototrophic microorganisms that produce organic products that are renewable and carbon neutral substitutes for materials that mainly come from fossil sources today.  Sometimes the high-value compounds are part of the microorganisms themselves.  An excellent example is the lipids in membranes and storage products inside the cells.  In this case, we harvest the biomass and extract the high-value materials.  In other cases, we modify the microorganisms to produce and excrete organic molecules that we harvest and directly convert to fuels or chemicals.  Great examples are lauric acid, which can be converted to jet fuel, and isoprene, which can be turned into a lubricant.  We call this second approach the “photosynthetic factory,” since the microorganisms act as tiny sun-driven factories that export renewable products for us to harvest.

The PBR Team’s research carries out fundamental-to-applied research in these inter-related areas:  advanced PBR designs to maximize the harvest rate of the product while minimizing the rates of water and nutrient use; mathematical modeling to connect all the microbiological, chemical, and transport processes occurring in the PBR; understanding and managing the microbial communities that develop in PBRs; and developing a wide range of high-value products.  The Team conducts its cross-disciplinary research in the laboratory and with its unique outdoor test beds.


A 16-L bench-scale photobioreactor for fundamental research with cyanobacteria

2,100-L roof-top photobioreactor for outside “real world” research