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All of a sudden, algae has become a hot topic in American society in general — and on University of Texas campuses in particular. That’s because the single-celled varieties of this aquatic life are increasingly being touted as an alternative energy source, particularly for transportation fuel. Some forms of algae convert solar energy into an oily substance (called lipids) that can be processed into a biofuel capable of running combustion engines like those in cars, trucks, even airplanes. As long as man can grow algae — in ponds, for example — he can produce more fuel directly from the sun’s energy. Thus, algae are potentially one of the simplest and cheapest sources of energy.
One beneficiary of, and asset to, this growing interest is the Culture Collection of Algae at UT Austin; with nearly 3000 strains growing in a space about the size of an average living room, it’s the largest and most diverse collection in the world. The center sells samples for $75. Until recently, according to director Jerry Brand, their customers were primarily plant and algal research scientists and students working on science projects. But with energy efficiency and “green” fuels at the center of so much current research, “Interest has exploded to the point where it’s hard to keep up with orders,” Brand says. “It’s a largely untapped resource that has only recently received a great deal of attention as a potential source of fuel. Nobody has shown yet that algae can economically produce large volumes of biofuel in a stable way.” But theoretical calculations and small-scale experiments indicate that it can, and many people are out to prove so: more than half the orders Brand now receives, from around the world, are from researchers seeking to create algae-derived biofuels. Brand figures we’re still more than five years away from producing commercial quantities.
Kyle Murray, an assistant professor of geology at UT San Antonio, believes it will happen quicker, and he wants to make the Alamo City a production center for algae-based biofuels. Murray has received funding that will enable him and his students to identify the various local algal organisms and take them to labs where their growth rate can be measured, their nutrient requirements determined and their ability to produced lipids gauged. Then a pilot program could be established whereby the most viable local organisms would be put into a pond system in south San Antonio and grown like a farm product; likewise, a photobiological reactor could be used to cultivate purchased strands of algae (such as those in Brand’s Culture Collection) that are known to produce large amounts of lipids. Murray believes San Antonio is an ideal locale for algae-farming because the area receives considerable sunlight and is relatively humid (which keeps the ponds from evaporating), while land for the ponds is relatively inexpensive there. “The city’s centrally located enough that we can send the product to Corpus Christi and Houston to have it refined,” he points out, and there are also potential customers in San Antonio, namely, the military.”
In The Future of Energy, Scott W. Tinker, director of UT Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology, and other higher-education experts discuss the world’s impending energy crisis. In “Outliving the Oil Era,” his profile on the State of Tomorrow Web site, Tinker stresses the need for an orderly transition from oil to greener sources of energy including solar, wind and algae.
Travel around Texas with State of Tomorrow™ and meet higher education researchers working hard for your, well, tomorrow. They’re striving to improve our future with groundbreaking research in such areas as treatment of cancer and of emerging infectious diseases; training better math and science teachers; maximizing available energy resources while searching for viable alternatives; and expanding our understanding of genomes (DNA) so we can live longer.
Meet Ritsuko Komaki and James D. Cox, who were instrumental in bringing the Proton Therapy Center to UT M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Proton therapy — which has been described as more like a form of surgery than a form of radiation — is the most precise cancer treatment available, with the fewest side effects, making it a primary cancer-fighter of the future.
Explore the ultra-secure Galveston National Laboratory and the Robert E. Shope, M.D. Laboratory at UT Medical Branch – Galveston, where C. J. Peters leads a team of scientists studying the most exotic, dangerous and contagious viral diseases known to man. They’re looking for vaccines and cures for the likes of Rift Valley fever, SARS and the Marburg virus — both to protect people around the world from the diseases in their natural form and to defend against their possible use as bioterrorist weapons of mass destruction.
Hear why Dr. Scott W. Tinker, director of the UT Austin Bureau of Economic Geology, asserts that so-called “energy independence” is unattainable in a world where nations are growing more, not less, interdependent. But with the proper planning, preparation and compromising, “energy security,” a much more reasonable goal, is well within our reach.
Listen to an extended interview with Dr. Steven Austad, professor of cellular and structural biology at the UT Health Science Center – San Antonio, about what he’s doing to extend the lives of humans.
Learn why UTeach at UT Austin has become a national model for training more effective math, science and computer science teachers who, in turn, will attract more students to these crucial fields.
And see how students at the UT Health Science Center – Houston “practice medicine” on complex, computer-driven human patient simulators.
Together, these men and women help assure a better future for us all.
If you’ve watched State of Tomorrow™, you already know higher education means more than an advanced degree. It means groundbreaking cancer treatments, new sources of energy to power our world, educational programs that help our next generation and research that keeps us safe today and tomorrow.
It also means people. In fact, that’s what makes State of Tomorrow so powerful — the people we meet in the lab, in the classroom or in the field. We hear their stories — and stories from people whose lives are forever changed by university faculty and researchers.
In 21st Century Cancer Care, Dr. James Cox tells us “Academic environments lead to creativity. They put an emphasis on bringing new things to patients — to science in general. We can push the envelope and each other to succeed in ways that haven’t been done before.”
‘Ways that haven’t been done before.’ That is the heart of innovation — to rethink, to improve, to imagine. That’s exactly what we’ve tried to do on this new State of Tomorrow site. We’ve added videos that allow you to dig deeper into topics. We’ve caught up with scientists and researchers from the series and highlighted their progress with in-depth features. We’ve made sure everyone can watch the series online. And, we’ve made sure every educator has access to the State of Tomorrow teaching tools.
Our main goal, after all, is to get the word out about public higher education. So that every time you think about healthcare or environmental quality or national security, you think about higher education — and every time you think about higher ed, you think about people who are working to make our communities stronger, safer, healthier and prosperous.
- Watch the series at State of Tomorrow