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Applying science research to everyday life: Turning algae into biofuel

Discoveries are made all the time in academic research.  Like a wolf pack marking its territory or a bacteria colony growing across its culture medium, each scientific discovery claims a piece of the knowledge frontier for humanity.

Most of the time, discoveries advance the borders of knowledge in a specific field that won’t have any direct impact on everyday life – at least not until someone can make use of that piece of information as part of something greater. There were times during my grad school days where I would think to myself in the dark windowless room: “Why am I doing this? Why am I wasting my life away toiling on something that only maybe 5 other people in the world would care about at all?”  But of course, every piece of discovery does add to the pool of information and make a difference in the future when applied in the right way.

Then there are times when a discovery can go right from the bench to make notable impact on life from the start.  Engineering and Chemistry labs tends to have more of these type of research projects than Biology.  Research that’s more applied, aimed at creating an actual marketable product.  Sometimes I think of Engineering as a field where you make things with the knowledge you’ve gained, where as Biology is where you poke at a black box labeled Life and you try to figure out how the heck living things work.  Be that as it may, there are times where you take the information that trickles out of that black box and apply it to a daily life problem.

What led me to write this post is an update from my grad school (Michigan’s PlanetBlue sustainability news), which included a video of research taking place at UM of making biofuels out of algae.  Those people over at the chemical engineering department sure are working on something cool.  For one of our future fuel source to be from a plant that can be “harvested continuously and grown in any water condition”, it’s almost like turning water into oil – just with added steps in between.  Well actually, it’s more involved than that, just check out the video below.

Can your own research be translated into valuable technology?  Perhaps you are thinking of starting a company based on your discoveries.  You can start by checking out the Technology Transfer office at your local institution, Business school is a good place to go for seminars open to the public, and don’t forget the various organizations that exist within your school that promotes startup ventures.

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