South Dakota research project could help colonize space
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
"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.