Like hitting two birds in one stone, diatoms can be sources of biofuel, and at the same time, they can also produce other products useful in various fields – biomedical and health, and even semiconductors, and finally, could make biofuel production cost-effective.
Since the Jurassic Period, diatoms have been thriving in all aquatic and moist environments. These single-celled microalgae have proteins that synthesize and deposit silica that eventually make up their intricately structured shells.
Photosynthetic biorefinery is what scientists call with what diatoms can do. Theoretically, with sunlight, water, silicon, and nitrates from nature, diatoms can biosynthesize in nano-scale various valuable compounds including biofuel.
To finally materialize this concept, the National Science Foundation awarded the Oregon State University (OSU) a $2 million worth of research grant.
Greg Rorrer, a professor at OSU and head of the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering who have been studying diatoms for a decade now, said, “We have shown how diatoms can be used to produce semiconductor materials, chitin fibers for biomedical applications, or the lipids needed to make biofuels. We believe that we can produce all of these products in one facility at the same time and move easily from one product to the other.
“Regular algae don’t make everything that diatoms can make. This is the only organism we know of that can create organized structures at the nano-level and naturally produce such high-value products. With the right components, they will make what you want them to make.”
In addition, nanotechnologists could probably learn a lot from these diatoms on how they synthesize intricate and strong structures, as what biomimicry researchers have been doing recently.