Fluidics for Bioenergy

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The photosynthetic process provides the ultimate model for sustainable energy. It stores abundantly available solar energy in a high density, transportable form and can be easily adapted to existing infrastructure. However, biomass production techniques which depend on food crops or other terrestrial plant matter have a huge economic and environmental impact. Photosynthetic  microorganisms, for example cyanobacteria, are an attractive alternative. They can be grown on waste lands and therefore avoid potential conflicts that arise from using food crops for biofuel production.

In our group we are applying optics and fluidics (optofluidics) to (i) develop improved photobioreactors and (ii) screen conditions for optimal production.  We are developing photobioreactor architectures that enable biofuel producing photosynthetic  microorganisms to be both packed tightly with in a reactor, excited and aerated optimally. For screening we are developing a  massively parallel array of optofluidic microreactors.

One such approach is the application of plasmonics to improve light capture and improve the cultivation of microalgae for use  as a feedstock for biofuels or other valuable commodities.  The unique interaction between visible light and nano-scaled metals provides opportunities to selectively enhance the optical environment of photosynthetic micro-organisms at wavelengths most useful to them in photosynthesis.  Plasmonics also presents an opportunity for sub-cellular probing of photosynthetic function, not possible with other methods.  Through near-field concentration, far-field scattering, and wavelength shifting, photobioreactors are being designed to maximize photon utilization and provide optimized and customized environments in which to grow microalgae.