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South Dakota research project could help colonize space

A NASA-funded project explores using blue-green algae as a "cyanofactory" to make energy-dense fuels and high-value chemicals, oxygen, and cleansed water directly from carbon dioxide, sunlight and wastewater. (Submitted photo)

BROOKINGS - Humans may move one step closer to colonizing space

thanks to a new research project that NASA is funding at South Dakota

State University, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and

Oglala Lakota College.

The South Dakota institutions have won a National Aeronautics and Space

Administration grant of $750,000 to study ways to use cyanobacteria (commonly known as blue-green algae) to make energy-dense fuels and high-value chemicals, oxygen and cleansed water directly from carbon dioxide, sunlight and wastewater.

NASA awarded the grant to a project submitted through the South Dakota

School of Mines and Technology, but the largest share of the work will

take place at South Dakota State University. Key SDSU researchers in the

work include associate professor Ruanbao Zhou and professor Bill Gibbons

in the Department of Biology and Microbiology; professors

Kasiviswanathan Muthukumarappan and Gary Anderson and assistant

professor Zhengrong Gu in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems

Engineering; and assistant professor XingZhong Yan in the Department of

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Researchers elsewhere

include professors Robb Winter and David Salem at the South Dakota

School of Mines and Technology and professor Deig Sandoval at Oglala

Lakota College.

"This project will help NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate

address the goal of providing renewable, energy-dense biofuels in a

sustainable manner, while supplying technology to sequester carbon

dioxide released by an astronautics crew," Zhou said. "Cyanobacteria,

through billions of years of evolution, have become well-tuned,

biological devices that can efficiently harvest solar energy, the one

limitless source of energy on Earth, and convert that energy into a

variety of reduced carbon compounds. Because of their simple

requirements for rapid growth and ease of genetic manipulation as well

as industrialized production, cyanobacteria are particularly attractive

organisms for biofuel production."

Because sunlight is available in space, life support systems that rely

in part on photosynthesis to grow algae are one possibility for moving

humans beyond Earth's atmosphere.

The grant was awarded through NASA's Experimental Program to Stimulate

Competitive Research, or EPSCoR. The program helps develop partnerships

between NASA research missions and programs, academic institutions and

industry. It also helps states establish long-term academic research

enterprises that will be self-sustaining and competitive and will

contribute to the states' economic viability and development.

The researchers and NASA believe the project could provide "game

changing" technology to NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist. It

could help resolve critical issues in what NASA calls its "Space Power

and Energy Storage" and the "Human Health, Life Support and Habitation

Systems" roadmaps - essentially summaries of what is needed to achieve

national and agency goals in human space exploration over the next few


The proposal addresses two of NASA's grand challenges - space

colonization and affordable, abundant power. The Exploration Systems

Mission and Space Operations Mission Directorates will benefit by

development of an integrated system that can support colonization

missions by producing chemical building blocks and fuels from sunlight,

wastes and carbon dioxide; and by producing oxygen and clean water to

maintain life support.

The project also proposes to develop an integrated photobioreactor and

product recovery system, driven by solar power provided by light fibers;

to strengthen collaborations with the NASA Ames Research Center to also

improve performance of the Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing

Algae system; to enhance multi-disciplinary undergraduate and graduate

education on molecular engineering, bioprocessing systems and applied

photonics, including Native American students; and to collaborate with

industrial partners to promote economic development in South Dakota.

"Our initial target product is a long chain alcohol with a much higher

energy density than ethanol," Zhou said. "This cyanofactory platform

could be easily reengineered to produce other fuels and chemicals using

free solar energy and carbon dioxide."

The initial work that led to the grant award came from the

proof-of-concept program developed by SDSU's Technology Transfer Office

with funding made available through the Small Business Administration.

Additional support has been provided by the South Dakota Agricultural

Experiment Station, the Center for Bioprocessing Research and

Development and the North Central Sun Grant Center.