Using sunlight, plants convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen. Called photosynthesis, it’s the reason plants are so effective at removing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Researchers are now trying to harness the power of plants to sequester, or capture industrial emissions – but to make it work, they first had to find just the right plant.

Chen: “Algae is very efficient in taking up the CO2.”

That’s Feng Chen, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He found a strain of microalgae in Chesapeake Bay that is particularly efficient at sequestering carbon dioxide. He and his team then used it to create an algae bioreactor that can capture industrial emissions.

A compressor pumps the carbon dioxide that’s released from the chimney of a power plant and bubbles it into the bioreactor. Then the algae does its work – absorbing the emissions that otherwise would have been released into the atmosphere.

But the benefits do not end there! There’s the potential to then convert the algae to biofuels, pharmaceuticals, or animal feed. Chen says finding a way to harvest it inexpensively may be the key to widespread adoption of this new innovation.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
Photo: UMCES researcher Feng Chen discovered the strain of algae that most efficiently absorbs carbon dioxide. Source: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

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Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...