Student researcher explores how algae can solve environmental problems

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When Ed Drabold needed a topic for his high school science fair project, he decided to look into microalgae. Microalgae are a unicellular photosynthetic organism invisible to the naked eye. Scientists and engineers have studied how it can be used as a renewable source, as algae can convert sunlight into a variety of products, from biofuels to biopharmaceuticals.

Years of studying microalgae led Drabold to Ohio University, where he majored in environmental studies through Honors Tutorial College and continued his research. He has received several awards for his innovative work and has published his research results in three academic papers, with more to come.

A judge Drabold met at a school science fair ended up being a counselor at Ohio University who worked closely with Drabold on his research. Dr. David Bayless, former Gerald Loehr Professor of Mechanical Engineering, now holds the Chair of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Missouri S&T.

Student researcher Ed Drabold
At the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment located in the biochemistry research center, OHIO student researcher Ed Drabold keeps samples of a microalgae culture in an incubator, which controls temperature and light exposure, so that the organism can be used in repeatable experiments. Ben Siegel University / Ohio

Ed’s work could lead to a commercially viable way to clean up nutrient pollution from waterways while simultaneously recycling atmospheric carbon, ”Bayless said. “Not only is he a very good researcher and hard worker, but he is always ready to help others and brings positive energy to the team that helps us all when we might otherwise be discouraged. “

Drabold is widely recognized for his research for some time. The subject gives hope for new sources of renewable energy that can be used in a sustainable way.

“Initially it was just a hit in the dark – but as I started to do more research in the lab, the complexities and potential intrigued me,” Drabold said of the research. “I keep trying to dig deeper and amass so much understanding in all areas. The application came later, when I worked with Honda in my first year.

Thanks to Drabold’s experience in the study of microalgae, he had the opportunity to join a project with Honda Research & Development in Marysville, Ohio, during the summer of 2018, which aimed to capture sustainable energy. created by the organization. The project involved the installation of Honda’s very first algae farm. The team studied the use of algae in the manufacturing industry to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into new energy. With the help of Bayless, Drabold collaborated with Honda engineers Joel Agner and Daniel Sellars.

“It was the first time, to my knowledge, that someone used algae in the manufacturing industry as a means of capturing CO2,” Drabold said. “It was a really great and unique experience. “

Following his participation in Honda research, Drabold created a techno-economic model to capture 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide – the amount produced in one year from the Honda Marysville plant. He is always interested in optimizing and capturing the energy produced by algae throughout manufacturing.

As a result of research conducted by the Honda team, Drabold was invited to speak at the Algae Biomass Organization, the largest gathering of algae researchers in the world. He gave a talk entitled “Integrated Biorefinery Systems Toward Commercial and Economic Viability”.

It takes a lot of passion to juggle extracurricular research with a full college curriculum. For Drabold, this is a normal part of student life. He used his freedom in the Honors Tutorial College program to access necessary courses while continuing his research. In doing so, he worked on the development of a major in bio-design that future HTC students can use to simultaneously study biology, technology, and engineering at OHIO.

“We were trying to find a degree that would be very multidisciplinary. This would allow (a student) to really focus on research and go to courses in different areas of the OU which would allow them to have the knowledge to do that research. A key point is that it’s incredibly multidisciplinary, and it’s really necessary, ”said Drabold.

In his second year, Drabold was recognized as the 2018-2019 recipient of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Foundation for Excellence in Education.

“Ed’s research on carbon capture grew out of his commitment to addressing the environmental challenges we face in Appalachian Ohio. Working within the automotive industry, he has developed ways to remove excess carbon from our atmosphere that are both environmentally friendly and economically viable, ”said Dr Chris Lewis, director of the ‘Office of Nationally Competitive Awards.

Drabold is currently working on his graduation thesis for the Honors Tutorial College, a review article on the progress in the field of continuous microalgal systems. While working on his thesis, he is pursuing research on the culture of microalgae from food waste, gene expression and bioinformatics of algae.

Dr Morgan Vis is co-advisor for Drabold alongside Bayless. She is a professor in the Department of Environmental and Plant Biology.

“Ed’s thesis is a review of all the literature concerning continuous algal culture systems. He delves into all kinds of research fields, from molecular biology to industrial systems, looking for what is known and what has yet to be learned for the commercialization of algae, ”said Vis. “He’s always looking to better build the systems that are really important in solving environmental problems. “

Student researcher Ed Drabold
Drabold is majoring in environmental studies through the Honors Tutorial College. He has received several awards for his innovative research on microalgae. Ben Siegel University / Ohio

After graduating from Ohio University this spring, Drabold plans to pursue a doctorate in chemical engineering. He recently accepted the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Drabold will begin the fellowship next fall under the supervision of Dr Yi Wang, professor of chemical engineering, Auburn University. Drabold and Wang discussed the student’s future research, which will involve creating process control models to control microalgae in continuous systems. Drabold hopes the research will drive transformative changes in the biotech industry and environment.

“To do anything we want to do as a human race, we have to be able to make all of our products more cheaply and more efficiently,” Drabold said. “My ultimate career goal is to realize this vision of creating continuous systems, which I believe is essential to making everything we make more energy efficient and more sustainable. ”


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