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Matthew Nelson works with algae in the biology department.Tiny blue-green algae have big potential for using the sun’s energy to turn carbon waste into bio jet fuel, according to University of Wisconsin Oshkosh researchers.

In July, UW Oshkosh microbiologist Toivo Kallas, along with research assistant Mathew Nelson, presented their latest findings at the sixth annual Wisconsin Science and Technology Symposium, organized by the WiSys Technology Foundation and UW-Superior.

WiSys supports innovative technologies developed in the UW System that have practical applications in the marketplace.

“Carbon-neutral bioproducts and biofuels will be imperative for a sustainable economy, global ecology and national security,’ Kallas said. “Cyanobacteria can help meet this need because they efficiently capture solar energy and atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon polymers.”

The microalgae ─ known as cyanobacteria ─ account for approximately 25 percent of photosynthesis globally and 50 percent of photosynthesis in the oceans.

The UWO researchers are working with Eric Singsass, of UW-Stevens Point, to genetically engineer the algae to increase the amount of isoprene (a precursor to synthetic rubber and aviation fuels) that could be produced from the process.

“We are getting some good yields,” Kallas said. “We think it has quite a lot of promise. The basic biology is fun and interesting work, and the practical applications make for a challenging new venture.”

With their success on the project to date, the researchers have applied for a patent through WiSys and have founded a start-up company called Algoma Algal Biotechnology LLC. They are continuing to modify the cyanobacteria in hopes of creating an even more efficient “super stain.”

The next step is to move the research out of the laboratory into a pilot project with the Environmental Research Innovation Center on the UW Oshkosh campus.

Kallas has more than 30 years of experience studying photosynthetic electron transfer, energy transduction and gene regulation in microalgae. Over the years, more than 70 undergraduate and 22 graduate students have worked on this research, funded by the National Science Foundation, WiSys Technology Foundation and UW Oshkosh.

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