Summer Science Exhibition

Meet the algae: diversity, biology and energy


Researchers from the University of Cambridge are studying ways to harness algae as a renewable energy source.

 Algae are an amazingly varied group of photosynthetic organisms, and – in addition to the well-known seaweeds and green slime on ponds – they are found in habitats as diverse as glacial ice and hot springs.  Using the power of sunlight, and consuming CO2, they make a wide range of exploitable products, including vitamins, pigments, oils and silica nanostructures.  Algae are an ideal renewable energy source because they may grow faster than land plants and can be grown in the sea or on marginal land that is not useful for food crop production.  Yet there are many aspects of basic algal biology where understanding is limited. 

“Algae offer considerable potential as a source of bioenergy.  By studying fundamentals of their metabolism and molecular biology and by understanding the fantastic natural variation in the different types of algae, we can harness this potential for energy production,” says Professor Sir David Baulcombe FRS, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge.

Visitors to the exhibit will be introduced to different groups of algae, and will see how they move in their environment, and how algae can harness sunlight to produce hydrogen, electricity or other forms of green energy.

Exhibited by University of Cambridge

Exhibitor's latest blog

Algae- Fit enough for a Queen. Don’t miss your chance to meet the team this weekend!
By Elena | Friday 2nd July, 2:22pm

Meeting the Queen as she met the algae was quite an experience. It was at the Royal Society’s 350th Anniversary Convocation, a full day event organised for Fellows of the Royal Society (some of the world’s most distinguished scientists). My supervisor, Prof Alison Smith, who organised our exhibit, invited Katherine and myself (both PhD students in her laboratory) to help with the stand. It was a great privilege that made me feel proud to be a scientist. The Convocation involved a ceremony in which Prince William was made a Royal Fellow, extending the support of the royal family to the Society, for years to come. There was a reception with drinks for the Fellows all through the afternoon, which was held at the Royal Festival Hall. Scientists and Royalty were welcome to visit the stands and talk to the exhibitors. It was incredibly busy- it is not surprising that the world’s most enlightened minds were excited to find out more about ongoing research in various fields on display.
Half way through a conversation with Prof Srikumar Rao, which he left abruptly and without pretext, Katherine and I found ourselves in front of her Majesty. The reason for my interlocutor’s sudden escape became clear, everyone went suddenly quiet, and the Queen turned to Katherine for an explanation as to why we bother study algae. Needless to say we were both slightly shocked- Katherine needed a moment to regain her bearings, whilst I dissolved into verbal disorder on everything that I ever knew about algae. We were both saved by Professor Ray Goldstein who gallantly stepped in to show the Queen videos of waltzing Volvox. With a smile on her face, her Majesty said she thought our exhibit was beautiful and walked away, her pale blue dress perfectly matched against the darker blue of our exhibit. Within moments Prof Rao was back where we left off- and I was back in the real world. Only now I had met the Queen and would have so much to tell my parents.
After that I felt the exhibit was bound to be a success, and I was not wrong. When it opened to the public a few days later, crowds of excited children, teenagers and adults were all eager to find out about algae. The waltzing Volvox was still a highlight with the adults, whilst kids enjoyed our quiz for which they could get toy prizes and pens made of algae. The biophotovoltaic device (a battery powered by algae) was a favourite with boys, whilst the environmentally minded audience were interested in algae as a source of sustainable biodiesel and green electricity. The last has also been a subject of writing in Wired:
So don’t miss your chance to meet the algae in person! The exhibit is still up and running all weekend. Our dedicated team is there to tell you all about algae-their amazing biology, diversity, how important they are in the world’s ecosystems and how we can use them to make our life on this planet more sustainable.
Here is a short video:

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The Exhibition is located in the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, and takes place from Friday 25 June to Sunday 4 July 2010. Open Friday 25 June 6pm - 8.30pm, then daily 10am - 8.30pm. Entrance is free. For groups larger than 12 people, please contact us to book.