Emilie Wood, UCSB Living Lab
As climate change continues at an ever-increasing pace, the scientific community is racing against the clock to develop a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. Dr. David Chapman, a University of California, Santa Barbara faculty member in the department of Evolution, Ecology and Marine Biology, has a particular interest in all things algal.
Algae are important for a number of uses, Chapman explains, from food products to skincare items and biofuels. Chapman is currently the Algae Curator for the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (CCBER) herbarium, which manages over 8,000 specimens. A collection of species like this allows scientists and research groups to take a look back in time, analyze the common flora from the past, and compare it to the current flora. Research groups such as the Long Term Ecological Restoration (LTER) program use the herbarium to house their specimens.
Algal products are used in many household items, unbeknownst to the average consumer; carrageenan and alginic acid can be found in many toothpastes, ice creams, face lotions, and a plethora of other very common products. To keep track of the many products in our daily life that include an algae byproduct as an ingredient, Chapman maintains several binders full of labels clipped from product packages.
When asked why he feels algae are such a critical field to study and communicate with the public, Chapman explained that their wide range of uses and applications makes them very applicable to many different fields and industries. He feels outreach is vital because “it is very important that universities don’t close themselves up behind brick walls and do only research, especially public universities, because we have an obligation, when asked, to assist in education and implementation of other programs.”
The CCBER herbarium partners with Marine Science Institute’s (MSI) educational program Oceans-to-Classroom and the Research Experience and Education Facility (REEF) Aquarium at Campus Point. This connection provides the REEF with information on the 30 most common algae in our local area, which the facility then uses to help teach ocean science to school tour groups, as well as the general Santa Barbara public. Chapman believes it is helpful and meaningful to proactively communicate algae’s role in local marine ecosystems as a key species, and he assists in facilitating the interaction with both REEF and the Coastal Marine Biolabs.
Algae as a potential biofuel is a hot topic among top researchers today. “Biofuels are becoming a very important aspect of modern algae usage,” Chapman explains. Through the process of photosynthesis, algae trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fix it into sugar molecules, which they use as energy to grow. Not only are biofuels made out of algae renewable, they actually help to sequester excess carbon from the atmosphere.
Additionally, algae are also easy to manipulate genetically, and researchers have produce strains of algae that yield the highest possible levels of biofuel compounds. To utilize algae as a potential fuel, a compound found within the cells of the algae is isolated and refined, similar to the way corn is used to produce ethanol as an alternative fuel source.
There are some concerns and limitations to this algae use, as increased algae growth also requires a large amount of land (yes, algae need land to grow—many algal ponds are on land!). There are many ways to grow the crop, from high-tech bioreactors to large algal ponds, but all options are very expensive. Also, an alga needs a copious amount of water to grow, and water will become even more stressed as climate change continues to put pressure on our fresh water supplies. In addition, the infrastructure for oil is very ingrained in our society. It may be hard to decouple from this main contributor to the economy and to build trust among consumers and industry in a new fuel technology.
As with any new technology, there are many challenges with this growing industry. However, there is much hope for the potential of algae as a biofuel, and the pressure is on to create a feasible alternative to fossil fuels in this ever growing world. Chapman recommends that we “do not underestimate or ignore the potential use of algae.”