Strains of algae have been proven to be useful to power fuel cells on Earth but what happens when it is in space?
That’s what the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and students from the Chatfield High School in Colorado aim to find out when their science experiment is sent to the International Space Station (ISS) for testing.
The experiment was supposed to take place two years ago on June 28, 2015, but the rockets carrying the algae exploded in flight. Now, a second-chance has been given to the research institute and the students when the new algae is set to take off on May 31.
Four liters of algae will be placed inside a four-chamber bioreactor developed by current and former students from the Colorado school. The two experiments are designed to see if the same results will happen in space as they have on Earth. If one strain of algae, Chalamydomonas Reinhardtii, will produce hydrogen that can be used to power fuel cells and the other, Chlorella Vulgaris, will make lipids.
NREL has been working with schools with its Creating Teacher Scientists program that helps teachers learn about renewable energy and energy efficiency so they can incorporate what they learn into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lesson plans. Chatfield High School found out about the plan to send experiments into space and applied to secure funding through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).
NREL engineer Nick Sweeney worked with the school to pull strains from about 500 different types of algae and suggested the students experiment with C. vulgaris and supplied the school samples, visited the lab at the school and helped with the design of the bioreactor.
The experiment will travel in a small box, 10 centimeters wide by 15 centimeters tall and inside is a four-chamber bioreactor designed to keep the algae spinning, with C.reinhardtii in two chambers and C.vulgaris in the other two. Squares of special tape that changes color from tan to gray and signals the presence of hydrogen will be affixed to the chambers housing the C.reinhardtii. The C.vulgaris algae will lose its greenish hue and turn yellowish as the algae begins to produce lipids.
In all, the experiment is designed to last about 24 days after which the algae will be frozen and then returned to Earth for comparison to the samples that remain on the ISS.
“I won't get my biomass sample for a couple of months,” Sweeney says, who has been working on hydrogen-producing algae with NREL scientist Sharon Smolinski. “It will be interesting to see how much their biomass changes from their baseline. Will there be much of a change? We don't know.”
Learn more about the algae experiment by visiting NREL’s Algal BioFuels Research Laboratory.