NASA looks to cyanobacteria for space colonization

| August 02, 2011

A team of South Dakota research institutions have won a National Aeronautics and Space Administration grant of $750,000 to study cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) used in space. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, South Dakota State University and the Oglala Lakota College were awarded with the grant in the hopes the research efforts will provide a technology to help with issues NASA has identified as space and energy storage, and the human health, life support and habitation systems NASA believes must be addressed for future space exploration.

The research efforts will include genetic manipulation, algae growth systems, photobioreactors suitable for solar energy in space and a product recovery system, all of which will help with space colonization and affordable, abundant power, according to NASA. The research will also help to create and integrated system that can support colonization missions through fuel and chemical production, and wastewater treatment.

“This project will help NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate address the goal of providing renewable, energy-dense biofuels in a sustainable manner,” according to Ruanbao Zhou, associate professor at SDSU. The work, Zhou said, will also help supply “technology to sequester carbon dioxide released by an astronautics crew.” The blue-green algae are well-suited for the project, Zhou explained, noting the cyanobacteria’s simple requirements for rapid growth, ease of genetic manipulation and industrial production capabilities.

“Our initial target product is a long chain alcohol with a much higher energy density than ethanol,” Zhou said, adding that a “cyanofactory platform” may have the potential to be reengineered to produce other fuels and chemicals, all from the solar energy and carbon dioxide in space.

The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology initially submitted the proposal to NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a program aimed at forming relationships between NASA and other academic or industry-related institutions. The majority of the work will be on the SDSU campus.