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Biofuels from Algae: Researcher Helping Ultimate Sustainable Energy Hit the Road

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Shabana Bhatti works to bring biofuels made from marine algae to fuel tanks.

Shabana Bhatti

Shabana Bhatti

Job: Algal Biofuels Research Associate, National Bioproducts Program, Halifax / Marine Research Station, Ketch Harbour, N.S.
Research: Algal biofuels

More about Shabana...

Current Projects
Getting There: Road to NRC
The Best Part of My Job
Life in a Research Lab
After Hours
If I Had a Million Dollars


Current Projects

We're working as a team to produce biofuels or oil from microalgae. I started in March 2010 and will be going out into the field to collect water samples containing phytoplankton, including micro-algae. The preliminary phase of this project involves the isolation and propagation of algal strains native to North America, which are adapted to local environments. We want to find out whether these micro-algae have the potential to achieve high growth rates and lipid (oil) productivity, while consuming industrially-sourced carbon dioxide.

We're hoping to discover about 100 algae isolates from across Canada and the US. To produce biofuel, you have to grow, produce and harvest the algae, concentrate it, then extract the oil. For algal biofuel to be a viable alternative, we have to find a cost-effective method to convert the algal biomass into fuels such as biodiesel or jet fuel.

As a team, we're working to help the biofuels industry develop the technology required to commercialize biofuel production from microalgae. We'll be collaborating with academic and private sector partners and others. Some of the bioactive compounds from algal isolates will also be useful for human and animal health.

Shabana Bhatti Getting There: Road to NRC

When I took a second-year plant course at university, I knew right away I was going to major in plant biology. I was just amazed at how these plants can sit in their environments and photosynthesize. Then I learned about algae and was even more amazed because they're single cells.

I finished my PhD on the inorganic carbon uptake of freshwater and marine microalgae at York University. I've been reading about algal biofuels for several years. I've mostly worked in labs with marine and freshwater algae, but algal field work is new for me.

In high school, I loved science and doing experiments and it just continued from there. At university, I was interested in science, math, chemistry and biology. Most of my family members are in the health field — nurses and doctors — but I really wanted to do something different. I always wanted to be a biologist.

After completing my PhD, I did a six-month post-doctoral fellowship with an aquatic ecologist at the University of Ottawa, studying the effects of toxins from cyanobacteria - also known as blue-green algae - on water quality. There I gained experience learning how to isolate and grow difficult species in the lab; but this was short-term because of tight funding. When I saw the NRC's position advertised, for an algal biofuels research associate, I was excited because it was exactly what I was looking for. I was offered similar research positions in Spain and the U.S. but I wanted to stay closer to my family in Toronto.

The Best Part of My Job

Until now, I've worked in a lab with algae and cyanobacteria. But I've really wanted to go into the field to see the environment where they actually live. For six to eight months, I'm going to enjoy going out to collect samples from brackish, fresh and marine waters.

I enjoy interacting with other members of the research team. I've been learning the roles and tasks of each research officer at the Marine Research Station in Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia. It's a tight-knit community. Everyone works really well together and we all know that we have several goals to reach.

Shabana BhattiLife in a Research Lab

I've been doing a lot of planning to make sure I have all the equipment and materials I need for the algal sampling and isolation. You have to be really organized. I'll be going to different parts of Nova Scotia and southern Ontario to collect samples. Two days a week I'll be out in the field wearing hip waders and carrying coolers with all the equipment. The rest of the time I'll be back at the lab trying to isolate the algal strains, purify them and grow them in test tubes.

We'll be doing some carbon uptake experiments with our new mass spectrometer on all the species we isolate and those in our algae library. For the strains that grow well, we'll use the photobioreactor, which is a large container for the mass cultivation of algae. I'll also be sending some samples to U.S. laboratories that have a more advanced way of sorting the single cells from the mixture of phytoplankton.

After Hours

I like to read for fun, especially health and nutrition books. I'm about to start a seven-day raw foods diet. But I must admit that I've been so busy finishing my PhD and doing post-doctoral work that I haven't had much time for that kind of reading lately.

If I had a Million Dollars

I'd hire more research associates and students into the algal research field, because there aren't that many of us. And I'd buy more equipment.

Personally, I'd travel with my family to unique places that I've never been, including the Arctic, Peru, Spain, Japan and China. The rest of the money I'd put aside for a rainy day.

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