© 2024 WSIU Public Broadcasting
WSIU Public Broadcasting
Member-Supported Public Media from Southern Illinois University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Student team led by SIU prof seeks to use algae to grow out-of-this-world crops

Student finalists pose on outdoor sculpture.
Russell Bailey
SIU News

A team of students led by a researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is one of just 15 nationwide finalists for the U.S. Department of Energy AlgaePrize 2023-2025 Competition. And if the Carbondale team succeeds, its project could be used to grow crops in off-Earth environments such as its moon and Mars.

The AlgaeUnlocked team, led by Scott D. Hamilton-Brehm, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, receives $10,000 and will spend the next year or so working on its research project, which centers on using microalgae combined with another patented technology created by an SIU spinoff company to produce biostimulants and biofuels. Composed of students from SIU and Carbondale Community High School, AlgaeUnlocked competed against almost 50 other teams nationwide.

The contest’s focus is finding better ways to process and use microalgae, Hamilton-Brehm said. SIU’s track record of groundbreaking research helped the team “connect the dots” on using oxidative hydrothermal dissolution (OHD) and microalgae to potentially feed and support future space exploration.

“OHD and microalgae are a perfect combination to close carbon loops and grow plants in otherwise inhospitable soil where NASA might plan to drop a human colony,” Hamilton-Brehm said.

OHD is an environmentally friendly technology that uses heat, pressure, oxygen and water to break down complex organic materials into simple, water-soluble products. The technology was pioneered by Ken Anderson, director of SIU’s Advanced Energy Research Center, and is a centerpiece of his company, Thermaquatica Inc.

Using microalgae as the biomass in the OHD process works well because of its suspension in water, Anderson said.

“What Scott and his students have found is that applying OHD to microalgae produces a very useful and valuable product that can be used to help produce other types of crops,” Anderson said. “That’s a win all around.”

No matter where they are, humans need water, oxygen and energy to survive, which are the same things needed to perform OHD, Anderson said.

“Whether here in Southern Illinois or in some terraforming station on Mars, we can use OHD – if it can support humans, it can utilize OHD,” he said. “So, if one day humans are attempting to colonize Mars or some other planet, and they're growing microalgae to make oxygen and other products, then they can reprocess the wastes that will be produced by using OHD and use its products to support activities like growing crops.”

Working with three crops

Hamilton-Brehm said the team will experiment with using the OHD-processed microalgae to grow corn, cannabis and soybeans. With soybeans, the team will plant them in simulated lunar and Martian regolith that is nearly chemically identical to the materials found on Mars and the moon.

“In the case of Mars, the only component left out of the simulated regolith is the perchlorate, which is a dangerous oxidant. That will be the only difference,” Hamilton-Brehm said. “The experiment will

simulate astronauts growing plants on a lunar or Martian base with only microalgae and an OHD system. There is a lot to unpack here, but it is a very big win for our team and SIU.”

Not a fertilizer

By definition, a biostimulant is not a fertilizer, Hamilton-Brehm explained, but rather a set of compounds, such as humics and fulvates that stimulate soil bacteria or send chemical signals to the plants to elicit changes.

“It can tell the plant to do things like grow stronger, or become more resistant to drought, fight off disease or make more fruits,” he said.

The team will experiment with growing the plants outdoors at the SIU Farms research fields, the campus research greenhouses and in Hamilton-Brehm’s laboratory.

The road ahead

As a finalist in the competition, the AlgaeUnlocked team will get to work preparing for a research symposium set for Feb. 20-23. The team next will submit the first of three, five-page research updates to the AlgaePrize challenge website by June 19 and continue working on its research for the next year.

The AlgaePrize Competition Weekend is set for April 11-13, 2025, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. That event will culminate in the AlgaePrize grand champion being announced.

Team members

With the new semester beginning, team membership is somewhat in flux, Hamiton-Brehm said. But core members include:

Hannah Phillips, a senior in microbiology, team captain and microalgae specialist.

Alyssa Zhan, a senior in plant biology and horticulture and biostimulant specialist.

Morgan Ruden, a senior in English and technical writer.

Chetan Singh, a graduate student in micro and biochemical molecular biology and

agriculture and microalgae specialist.

Alex Bechtel, a graduate student in micro and biochemical molecular biology and a field researcher.

Danielle Snyder, a CCHS student and field researcher.

Tim Crosby — engineering, science and agriculture.

SIU News is produced by University Communications and Marketing - 618-453-2589. Twitter: @SIUCNews
As a WSIU donor, you don’t simply watch or listen to public media programs, you are a partner. By making a gift, you help WSIU produce, purchase, and broadcast programs you care about and enjoy – every day of the year.