Presently, 80% of global energy production uses fossil fuels. Coal, oil, gasoline, diesel, and the like have been used for over 150 years, powering vehicles, machinery, and generators for electricity. But for all their usefulness, fossil fuels have one major disadvantage – they emit harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Thus, finding alternative sources of energy is important. Algae, in particular, can be turned into environmentally-friendly biofuels.
This topic is highly valuable for students looking to pursue degrees in biotechnology, bioscience enterprise, or environmental science. But students learning about algae to bioenergy for the first time might find the lessons intimidating. Thankfully, there are many ways to make it more engaging and approachable. Read on to find out how.
What Makes Algae to Bioenergy a Challenging Topic?
First, let’s look at why students find it challenging to learn about algae to bioenergy. Here are the top three challenges according to both students and teachers.
1. It’s hard to see algae as a fuel source
When students think of algae, the first thing that often comes to their minds is a patch of green on the surfaces of lakes and rivers. Algae have a certain perception as icky, slimy creatures that are of no value. Thus, students who are unfamiliar with the field of algal biotechnology will find it difficult to grasp this topic.
2. Extracting biofuel from algae is a complex process
Algae are composed of tiny cells, and these cells house the valuable oils that can be transformed into biofuel. Extracting these oils takes a lot of effort, as they are locked within the algal cells. The cell walls first have to be broken apart to make the oils ooze out of the cells. Only then can the oils be extracted. This entire process involves a lot of careful biological techniques, so students with no prior experience may find the methods confusing at first.
3. Refining algae into biofuel is equally complex
The oils extracted from algae cannot be used as fuel on its own. At this state, it’s like crude oil, which needs to be refined into useful products first. In the same manner, crude algal oil has to be purified and refined to produce biodiesel. Only the refined form can be used in vehicles and machines. Similarly, this refinement process is tedious and time-consuming for many students.
Summary of the process of turning algae into biofuel (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
5 Ways to Make Algae to Bioenergy a More Approachable Topic
Based on students' difficulties studying algae to bioenergy, here are five tips for educators to make the topic more interesting. Each piece of advice addresses a particular challenge that students face.
1. Talk about the value of alternatives to fossil fuels
Turning algae into bioenergy may be hard to comprehend for many students. But if you talk about the importance of this technology, students will start to open up to this topic. Here are a few points to consider.
First of all, the burning of fossil fuels releases a large amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a significant contributor to climate change. Based on the numbers from NASA, human activity has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere by 50% in less than 200 years. That amount of carbon dioxide warms up the Earth’s temperature. If fossil fuels continue to be used, they will keep emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further heating up the planet.
If the Earth warms up by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the effects can be disastrous. According to studies presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global temperature increase of 1.5ºC is the maximum “safe zone” to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. These include severe hurricanes, melting glaciers, coastal flooding, etc.
Because of the threats posed by climate change, governments around the world have agreed to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by significant amounts. Using biofuels from algae is one significant step that can be taken to address this problem.
If students can appreciate these points, they will sooner realize the importance of converting algae to bioenergy.
2. Use graphics as teaching materials
Students will learn better if they can see illustrations, diagrams, graphics, and images. Algae are tiny organisms, so it will help if students can see them up close through microscope images and the like. Also, the processes involved in extracting algal oil and converting it to biofuel are easier to understand when diagrams guide students.
Videos, in particular, are useful teaching tools for this topic. They allow students to follow the process of turning algae to biofuel every step of the way. This way, they can master the basic concepts easily.
Interactive simulations are even better. They let students perform the techniques of algal biotechnology in a safe, computer-generated environment. The experience is quite close to working in a real lab, but without the hazards. If they make mistakes, there is no risk of harming themselves. Once they master the technique in the virtual world, they will be more confident as they perform actual lab work. The image below is from Labster’s simulation entitled From Algae to Bioenergy.
3. Review the basics
Students must first have a good grasp of a few foundational concepts to better understand the process of biofuel production from algae. Here are some of those basics that students need for this topic.
Algal oil can be converted into biodiesel by a chemical reaction with an alcohol. The chemical reaction occurs most efficiently when aided by a basic catalyst like NaOH (sodium hydroxide) and a temperature of about 60 degrees Celsius. The reaction removes the glycerol component of oil, turning it into diesel fuel.
Chemical reaction of oil and alcohol to produce biodiesel (Image source: Labster Theory)
Methanol is the simplest form of alcohol. It has the chemical formula CH3OH. Methanol is used to produce biodiesel from algal oil.
Caution must be applied when working with methanol. The substance is toxic, flammable, and highly dangerous.
Hazards of Methanol
Methanol is a dangerous substance. Here are some precautions to take when handling this reagent.
Keep away from heat, sparks, open flames, hot surfaces. No smoking.
Keep the container tightly closed.
Ground/bond container and receiving equipment.
Use explosion-proof electrical, ventilating, and lighting equipment.
Use only non-sparking tools.
Take precautionary measures against static discharge.
Do not breathe mist or vapors. Avoid spraying.
Wash exposed skin thoroughly after handling.
Do not eat, drink, or smoke when using this product.
Use only in a well-ventilated area.
Wear protective gloves, protective clothing, eye protection, and face protection.
IF SWALLOWED: immediately call a POISON CENTER or doctor/physician.
IF ON SKIN (or hair): immediately remove all contaminated clothing. Rinse skin with water/shower.
IF INHALED: bring the victim to fresh air and keep them at rest in a position comfortable for breathing.
If swallowed, rinse mouth.
Wash contaminated clothing before reuse.
In case of fire: Use carbon dioxide, powder, or alcohol-resistant foam to extinguish.
Store in a well-ventilated place. Keep container tightly closed.
Store locked up.
Dispose of contents/container to comply with local, state and federal regulations.
4. Walk students through the processes involved in turning algae to bioenergy
Students who have not experienced the methods of algal biotechnology may find this topic daunting. For this reason, it’s important to use firsthand experience to build students’ confidence.
Once students get the hang of the basic techniques, they will find it easier to do actual lab work. They will be familiar with routine methods already.
Video demos and interactive simulations prove useful if lab work cannot be done. Simulations like those found in Labster can help students have the necessary skills they need before embarking on actual lab work.
5. Use virtual lab simulations
Virtual lab simulations are excellent tools for teaching algal biotechnology. Labster is determined to deliver fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that make use of gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems while exposing students to an immersive, realistic, 3D environment.
Check out this simulation called From Algae to Bioenergy at Labster. This virtual lab allows students to perform decontamination and antibiotic selection in a safe, computer-generated environment. With this, students will gain the confidence to eventually perform the procedure on their own in an actual lab.
The image below is an example of what students can explore in the simulation.