With a slimy green complexion and a name like Chlorella kessleri, it conjures up the image of a cruel Disney villainess.
But the tiny algae plant, also known as Chlorella vulgaris, has become the real-life hero of a process being perfected by University of Kansas engineering students and faculty — a process that could not only help to improve the planet’s fresh water supply, but also be the source of a biofuel.
The process, KU’s Feedstock to Tailpipe Initiative, has teamed engineering faculty members with about 25 graduate and undergraduate engineering students to turn the microalgae into environmentally friendly fuel for cars, trucks, trains, and even aircraft.
Belinda Sturm, associate professor of civil, environmental, and architectural engineering, said the microalgae naturally remove nutrients from
“I was taking
and we talked about algae
for about a week and I thought
it was the coolest thing
I had ever heard —
using algae to fuel cars.”
— Emily Cook, Civil Engineering
wastewater— nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, which would otherwise harm the environment. The process not only cleans up the wastewater, but the resulting toothpaste-like algae then becomes a feedstock for biofuels.
One of the project’s goals is to set up a real-world model for a local municipal water treatment plant to use to grow its own algae to treat nutrient-rich wastewater. After the algae consume the nitrogen and phosphorus, the cleaner water can be returned to nature. As a bonus, the municipality could send the resulting microalgae to a biofuel facility.
At KU, the process begins in a greenhouse atop the M2SEC research facility, part of the School of Engineering complex. Civil and environmental engineering students grow the microalgae in wastewater ponds.
The chemical and petroleum engineering researchers turn the microalgae into biofuel. Then the mechanical engineering team takes over, testing the biofuel in an engine for its performance and emissions.
The initiative is funded by several federal grants from agencies including the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and NASA.
Emily Cook, is on the team managing an algae-growing operation in a greenhouse on the roof of KU’s M2SEC research facility.
Kelly Kindscher went foraging last spring. He trudged down country roads in central Kansas, dug in ditches — and bagged 20 pounds of wild tomatillos. He brought them home and used them to cultivate new plants.
Kansans sometimes call these plants ground cherries. They are related to the tomatillos often used in cooking. But he’s not making salsa - he’s fighting cancer.
Kindscher, senior scientist in KU’s environmental studies program, says wild tomatillos have a long history in food. “Native people picked these in quantity, dried them into cakes, and used them in soups and food.
“So I thought, wow, they could be both food and medicine.”
Along with Barbara Timmermann, distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry, Kindscher is studying the molecular properties of the Physalis longifolia, a type of tomatillo native to Kansas. They are using a $400,000 strategic initiative grant from KU, part of the university’s Bold Aspirations plan to energize research and scholarship.
The project is still in the research phase within Timmermann’s chemistry lab, but the team is close to finding validation that tomatillos could be used to reduce side effects from chemotherapy and improve a patient's quality of life.
“We were delighted — the screen showed that they are very high in antioxidants,” Kindscher says. “The hope is that this would lead to a product on the market — either a natural product or pharmaceutical product — that would be useful for treating cancer.”
But how do they taste? “Surprisingly good!” Kindscher says. “It’s something like a raisin or dried cranberry. These are really, really tasty.”
Mikhail Medvedev is shining new light on mysterious dark matter.
Dark matter is estimated to make up 85 percent of our universe, but it can't be detected with scientific instruments. Researchers infer its existence through astronomical observations — and they have a number of cosmological questions.
Medvedev, professor of physics & astronomy, has developed a new model — the flavor-mixed multicomponent dark matter model — based on his theory that a particle has several identities, or flavors, at the same time.
The new model he created relies on these flavor-mixed particles and on "quantum evaporation," a theoretic discovery he and his team made in 2010. Quantum evaporation changes how dark matter clumps gravitationally and ultimately changes the measurement of dwarf galaxies in the universe and how dark matter is distributed within them.
"If confirmed, this will be a huge step forward — a quantum leap, so to say — in unraveling the nature of dark matter," Medvedev says. "It will rule out a lot of theories that are on the table, and could lead us to a better understanding of how the universe has developed."
A tiny “lab on a chip” in development at KU could transform the early diagnosis of some cancers.
Yong Zeng, assistant professor of chemistry, and Andrew Godwin, deputy director of the University of Kansas Cancer Center, are creating a byte-sized biomedical testing device that could lead to less invasive, earlier detection and boost patients’ survival rates.
“Our lab on a chip is designed to identify patients’ tumor burden using blood as a liquid biopsy — or as a way to detect cancer early, before an individual experiences related symptoms,” Godwin says. This microchip-sized testing device screens the fluid-filled particles that are released from cells for cancer. The screens can be used in cancer detection instead of more invasive and costly biopsy procedures.
"We can just use those nanoparticles — exosomes — to study the molecular makeup of those tumors to identify if this is a really invasive or aggressive tumor or if it’s dormant and we still have time to
Yong Zeng and
Andrew Godwin (pictured)
received a $640,000 grant from the National Cancer
Institute at the National Institutes
of Health to perfect
the “lab on a chip” technology.
treat it," Zeng says. "This will help us plan the treatment — to find the right dosage or the right timing to improve the efficacy of cancer therapy."
Initially, the researchers and their team used the device in the detection of lung cancer, but Godwin sees the potential for it in the detection of ovarian cancer.
“Ovarian cancer has very vague symptoms,” Godwin said. “That leads to women going to their gynecologist or physician at very late stages where they tend to have widespread disease. If you can find it early, the outcomes are much better.”
The researchers plan to develop new lab-on-a-chip devices for different types of cancer so that tests for specific cancers can be developed.
Eventually, the researchers said, the technology may be adapted to diseases other than cancer.
“A lab on a chip shrinks the pipettes, test tubes, and analysis instruments of a modern chemistry lab onto a microchip-sized wafer.”
assistant professor of chemistry
Three leading scholars — K. Christopher Beard, ecology & evolutionary biology; David Roediger, American studies and history; and William Picking, pharmaceutical chemistry — are the first of 12 Foundation Distinguished Professors.
The annual National Science Foundation (NSF) survey of federally funded university research expenditures placed KU 38th last year among national public research universities.
The Bioscience & Technology Business Center, which completed a 30,000-square-foot expansion of its main facility in summer 2014, now has more than 30 tenants, including Garmin and Archer Daniels Midland.
In FY2014, KU had 100 active license agreements for commercial use of KU technologies or inventions — an increase of 22 from FY2013.
Dorothy M. Daley, associate professor of public affairs & administration, received an NSF grant that will fund a three-year study on state and local climate risk governance.
Kenneth Peterson used light in his ongoing search for an inexpensive, effective drug to treat sickle cell disease.
Peterson, a professor and vice chair in the biochemistry and molecular biology department at KU Medical Center, needed a way to screen 121,000 compounds to find ones that turn on a helpful form of hemoglobin that counteracts the form that causes sickle cell disease.
“We used luciferase — light-emitting — proteins that were fused to the hemoglobin. Using light was a good way to measure the on/off switches for a given gene,” he says. “It was a very cute way to monitor it.”
Working with researchers at the High Throughput Screening Laboratory on the Lawrence campus, Peterson eventually narrowed the compounds down to 232, seven of which are the most promising ones so far.
Peterson says the seven compounds are now being tested and next, he will work with medicinal chemists at KU to make sure the compounds are safe for humans.
Current treatments for sickle cell disease are expensive and can also be ineffective, he says. “There are millions of people in the world with sickle cell and other genetic blood diseases, particularly in developing countries. The idea is that if we can discover a compound and we can make it into a good pharmacologic, that it will be that sort of magic $3 pill.”
Sickle cell anemia, a hereditary disease that causes mutation in red blood cells, cuts off the blood supply to tissues. Eventually, tissue and cell death occur and can cause strokes, anemia, and organ damage.
As a child in Malaysia, Chan Kin Onn crawled through jungles and swamps to find specimens of frogs, lizards, and snakes. Now a doctoral student in herpetology, Chan is still collecting. His latest discovery: yet another new species of frog.
Chan identified Hylarana centropeninsularis, an orange-striped frog with yellow speckles found by another herpetologist in the swamps of the Malay Peninsula. The frog was originally confused with the Siberut Island Frog, which is similar in color and pattern but found more than 450 miles away in Indonesia.
Chan and a research team at KU’s Biodiversity Institute used genetic analysis to confirm that the doppelgänger frog was indeed a new species.
“The lab is able to run a number of different genetic analyses, including cutting-edge Next Generation Sequencing,” Chan says. “Our bioinformatics lab can analyze extremely large and computationally expensive datasets. The great thing about our lab is that we have the equipment and expertise to run everything — from initial DNA extractions to the final data analyses — without any outsourcing.”
Hylarana centropeninsularis is not Chan’s first discovery: He has described seven new species of frogs and three new species of lizards.