Extracting the Future of Fuel


Someday, in the not-too-distant future, a small farm on Mars may be growing materials for biofuel using an invention developed at Savannah State.

One thing NASA is going to need for long-voyage space exploration is fuel — and plenty of it. And in order to sustain long-term colonies or studies, they need the ability to both create and store it.

So NASA has been exploring ways astronauts can manufacture fuel in space that will power outposts for long-term survival on other planets.

One of the ways the national space agency thinks this can be accomplished is through algae. Yes, that slimy, greenish stuff that grows in your birdbath might get the next generation of scientists to new places in the solar system.

Since an astronaut would be farming the algae perpetually, the idea is to get some started, harvest most of it and then use a small amount to “seed” the next batch.

Algae is a fairly simple organism and has few needs for survival. It thrives on a bit of sun and water, but current methods for the harvesting process are notoriously difficult and often severely damage the algae itself, making it unusable. Some systems solve this problem — to remove the algae from its culture medium — but are very expensive and often require more energy than would ultimately be harvested.

When Christopher Hintz, Ph.D., associate professor of marine and environmental sciences at Savannah State, heard about NASA’s ideas for algae and biofuels, he applied for and received a grant to work on algae growth and collection. “Being able to have low effort, low energy ways to store solar energy in the form of biomass and biofuel is one possible solution we were exploring,” he says.

Hintz and Amber Wilkinson, a graduate student, were working on ways to collect and grow algae when Hintz inherited an old protein skimmer. When he plugged it in, Wilkinson noticed something unusual with the algae and had an idea. “Together, we realized the potential for a new process to filter micro-organisms from their culture media,” Hintz recalls.

Their version can be made with a few low-energy components, compressed air and some plastic pipe.

The two reconfigured the contraption and devised an entirely new way to harvest the algae without damage to the organisms. They “utilized a compressed air-lift pump to move the culture media and cells through the separation apparatus … reducing energy consumption and improving efficiency,” Hintz explains.

Hintz soon realized they were onto something entirely new and began working with the university’s legal team and the Office of Sponsored Research Administration (OSRA) to apply for a patent. “We initially filed a provisional patent back in late 2010,” Hintz explains. More than five years later, SSU has been notified that the application was accepted and a patent will be issued for the process.

Hintz thinks there could be multiple applications for the discovery, not just for space travel. Pharmaceutical companies that need to make compounds and harvest yeast cells could benefit by being able to harvest without damaging cells. It’s just one more way grant-funded research at Savannah State allows faculty and students to explore possibilities and tinker with new ideas.

This article first appeared in Arising, 2016.