Shannon Murphy
Year: 2014
School: SUNY Geneseo
Faculty Advisor: Klaas Van Wijk

Optimizing the growth of biofuels: Research to advance systems thinking and inquiry in STEM education curricula

Project Summary

Biofuel derived from cellulosic biomass and oils of plants recently has garnered considerable attention as a renewable energy resource.  Unfortunately, presently used biofuel feedstocks (e.g., corn and soybeans) have significant consequences economically and ecologically –requiring dedicated acreage in arable land and large inputs of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer.  Microalgae, however, are among the most potentially significant sources of sustainable biofuels as they possess greater photosynthetic efficiencies, yield greater oil per dry weight/acre than contemporary feedstock crops, and require minimal carbon and nitrogen inputs.

My research investigated culture techniques to promote volumetric productivity of biomass in the algaChlorella protothecoides.  Moreover, as and intern in the Bioenergy and Bioproducts Education Program (BBEP), my primary objective was to integrate these data into BBEP’s algal bioreactor activities aimed at introducing a system-thinking approach, aligned with Next Generation Science Standards (National Academy of Sciences) to sustainability and biofuel production in grade 7-12 grade STEM curricula.  To that end, C. protothecoides was grown in liquid culture under various concentrations of salt water [NaCl] in order to evaluate, via cell concentration and optical density, the viability of using ocean water cultivation as a means to reduce freshwater resource consumption. Lipid content (inter- and extracellular) from a representative sample of C. protothecoides was examined via fluorescent microscopy. Lastly, the relationship(s) among cell concentration, optical density, and dry-weight was determined via linear regression.  These data will be introduced into BBEP algae classroom activities, thereby enabling students to evaluate different cultivation methods of potential biofuel crops.

My Experience

My experience as the Bioenergy Education Intern enabled me to conduct research for the first time; providing a taste of what graduate school and a career in research might look like.  Under the guidance and encouragement of my mentor (Shawn Kenaley) and project leader (Tiffany Fleming), I acquired confidence in executing independent research, trouble-shooting, and utilizing the collective knowledge and experience(s) of colleagues.   In addition, discussions with STEM educators has afforded me further insight into creative ways for integrating cross-cutting topics and inquiry-based thinking into the classroom. Because of my experience at BTI I have renewed interest in pursing research/outreach in graduate school, and have a greater appreciation of plant biology and its fundamental global role .