Speedy 3D Printer Could Revive Algae Biofuel, With Coral Bonus

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Algae biofuel certainly faces an uphill battle these days, what with the global oil price crash and competition from electric vehicles. Nevertheless, there may be a glimmer of hope for algae biofuel fans, in the form of an ultra-fast 3D printer housed in a California laboratory. In an interesting sustainability twofer, the same machine might also spit out an assist for the world’s ailing coral reefs.

renewable biofuel coral
A 3D printer at UC-San Diego could unlock the future of algae biofuel and help save coral reefs, too (photo cropped, by SIO via National Science Foundation).

3D Printer Assisted Algae Biofuel

The 3D printer in question lives in the laboratory of nanoengineering professor Shaochen Chen, of the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California in San Diego.

The lab is better known for its application of super fast 3D printing in the medical field, including cell interactions with micro and nano-environments, biomaterials science, and biomechanics. The high rate of speed is needed because you have to 3D print living biobased materials before they expire.

Of particular interest to algae biofuel fans is the lab’s leadership in areas related to solar energy.

“We are one of the leading groups in the field in developing photo-polymerization-based 3D printing and bioprinting techniques,” the lab explains.  “Our printing methods are capable of creating 3D scaffolds in mere seconds with micro and/or nanoscale resolution in hydrogels.”

Algae Biofuel & The Coral Connection

If you caught that thing about photo-polymerization, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. One of the key challenges for algae biofuel is how to grow algae as quickly and efficiently as possible, and that involves deploying solar energy as efficiently as possible.

That brings us around to a multi-national team of researchers from UC-San Diego and the University of Cambridge. They looked at the interplay between coral, algae, and solar energy and noted that “corals have evolved as optimized photon augmentation systems, leading to space-efficient microalgal growth and outstanding photosynthetic quantum efficiencies.”

Got all that? Good! Now for the plain language version. Corals come in astonishing variety but  all share the same calcium carbonate support structure that doubles as a light-scattering medium, which enables more microalgae to grow and share space with the internal tissue.

Without the light-scattering geometry, algae growth would be limited by the shade they create themselves, or, as the team puts it, “photosynthetic performances in corals have been optimized by evolution in a competitive habitat with limited resources, leading to space efficient light management, high algal cell densities and photosynthetic quantum efficiencies that approach theoretical limits.”

That sounds pretty impressive as-is, but team decided to try engineering some improvements into the basic structure.

It looks like they succeeded. In a study published earlier this month in the journal Nature Communications, the team reported that their custom 3D printed coral could grow a commercial strain of microalgae up to 100 times more densely than natural coral.

The improvements focused on capturing and scattering more light within the structure, partly by festooning the engineered coral with tiny cylindrical structures and partly by embedding nanoscale crystals inside.

Saving Coral With Coral, & Algae Biofuel

Aside from leading to a more economical pathway for growing microalgae, the researchers are optimistic that their new coral can be used to help repair and restore natural coral reefs.

That’s going to be a tough row to hoe, considering the stress that the climate crisis is putting on coral reefs globally.

That circles back around to algae biofuel, as an alternative fuel that could help address the climate crisis by capturing carbon instead of just releasing it.

As one pathway for decarbonizing the global economy, algae biofuel had some golden moments during the Obama administration, when the US Navy and the Air Force deployed it for jet and watercraft fuel.

The Energy Department continued to drop dollars on algae biofuel research after Obama left office and on into last July, as part of a $79 million round of funding for bioenergy research.

NASA has also been pumping clams into the algae research area, as a means of off-Earth life support as well as fuel.

Then there’s ExxonMobil, which began to ramp up its interest in algae biofuel back in 2013, though that may have had more to do with an interest in sticking it to coal stakeholders rather than a serious effort to transition into a more sustainable model.

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Image credit (cropped): 3D printed image by SIO (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC-San Diego) via National Science Foundation.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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