NASA's Astrobiology Research Spurs Green Tech
NASA astrobiologists spark new green technologies in their quest to understand the evolution of microbial life.
Exobiology scientists at NASA Ames are looking into the origin and evolution of the most primitive organisms and their ability to adapt to different environments, and the implications for life elsewhere. The ultimate goal is to determine how those microbes and environments have changed over time to create the world we live in today.
By investigating the evolution of genes, metabolic pathways, and microbrial species, the findings show the coevolution of microbrial communities that drive the major recycling processes on Earth—critical in the development of new technologies for sustainable energy, food and water processing.
“It may surprise people to learn that NASA’s space science research has so many direct applications to the development of ‘greentech.’ Many of the organisms we study are important producers of hydrogen, methane and lipids that can be used as carbon neutral fuels, and other products,” said Orlando Santos, chief of the Exobiology Branch at Ames, in a statement.
By studying algae, Ames Exobiology scientists discovered that non-traditional species of algae can produce lipids needed to make low-cost fuels. Exploring this option, NASA has met with many industry and research colleagues to discuss America's huge energy consumption demands and the obstacles in producing algae for biofuel commercially. Today, researchers behind this project are helping commercial agal growers produce algae more efficiently and are modeling data to assess and predict changes in the health of algae crops.
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Additionally, the same techniques used to study environments like Mars have been applied to assess methane cycling in the ponds at the Sunnyvale Water Pollution Control Plant in California. The results showed that pond organisms oxidize dissolved methane extremely efficiently at up to 83 percent, while other non-dissolved gases escaped in bubbles too quickly for microbial decomposition—an extremely low energy way to reduce greenhouse gasses.
“NASA’s future includes long-term human space flights,” said Leslie Bebout, a research scientist in the Exobiology Branch at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in a statement. "As part of the human exploration studies, we are studying photosynthesis in space, which can consume carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts, produce oxygen, and recycle nitrogen-containing wastes."
Businesses, scientists and engineers across the country are now working together more than ever to develop versatile microbial engineering platforms that use significantly less resources and energy to optimize production.
Major move forward for UK’s nascent marine energy sector
Although the industry is small and the technologies are limited, marine-based energy systems look to be taking off as “the world’s most powerful tidal turbine” begins grid-connected power generation at the European Marine Energy Centre.
At around 74 metres long, the turbine single-handedly holds the potential to supply the annual electricity demand to approximately 2,000 homes within the UK and offset 2,200 tonnes of CO2 per year.
Orbital Marine Power, a privately held Scottish-based company, announced the turbine is set to operate for around 15 years in the waters surrounding Orkney, Scotland, where the 2-megawatt O2 turbine weighing around 680 metric tons will be linked to a local on-land electricity network via a subsea cable.
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Described as a “major milestone for O2” by CEO of Orbital Marine Power Andrew Scott, the turbine will also supply additional power to generate ‘green hydrogen’ through the use of a land-based electrolyser in the hopes it will demonstrate the “decarbonisation of wider energy requirements.”
“Our vision is that this project is the trigger to the harnessing of tidal stream resources around the world to play a role in tackling climate change whilst creating a new, low-carbon industrial sector,” says Scott in a statement.
The Scottish Government has awarded £3.4 million through the Saltire Tidal Energy Challenge Fund to support the project’s construction, while public lenders also contributed to the financial requirements of the tidal turbine through the ethical investment platform Abundance Investment.
“The deployment of Orbital Marine Power’s O2, the world’s most powerful tidal turbine, is a proud moment for Scotland and a significant milestone in our journey to net zero,” says Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Net-Zero, Energy and Transport for the Scottish Government.
“With our abundant natural resources, expertise and ambition, Scotland is ideally placed to harness the enormous global market for marine energy whilst helping deliver a net-zero economy.
“That’s why the Scottish Government has consistently supported the marine energy sector for over 10 years.”
However, Orbital Marine CEO Scott believes there’s potential to commercialise the technology being used in the project with the prospect of working towards more efficient and advanced marine energy projects in the future.
“We believe pioneering our vision in the UK can deliver on a broad spectrum of political initiatives across net-zero, levelling up and building back better at the same time as demonstrating global leadership in the area of low carbon innovation that is essential to creating a more sustainable future for the generations to come.”
The UK’s growing marine energy endeavours
This latest tidal turbine project isn’t a first for marine energy in the UK. The Port of London Authority permitted the River Thames to become a temporary home for trials into tidal energy technology and, more recently, a research project spanning the course of a year is set to focus on the potential tidal, wave, and floating wind technology holds for the future efficiency of renewable energy. The research is due to take place off of the Southwest coast of England on the Isles of Scilly