Graduate students awarded $10,000 for biofuel project

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Two UC Berkeley graduate students who developed a more efficient way to harvest biofuel from algae have been chosen as  winners of a $10,000 grand prize through a competition sponsored by Dow Chemical Company.

Berkeley is one of 17 campuses worldwide that participates in Dow’s Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award, with each school selecting one grand prize winner and one runner-up, typically based on review by judges from the university and Dow.

Winners Mozziyar Etemadi and Kayvan Keshari are both part of joint graduate programs between UC Berkeley and UCSF, where they are simultaneously earning doctorates and medical degrees. Etemadi’s focus is in bioengineering, while Keshari’s focus is in biology.

The two were working together on a separate project when they began discussing green energy and solar power and came up with the idea that would lead to the algae biofuel project.

Scientists have demonstrated the possibility that algae can be engineered in such a way to produce biofuel — a cleaner, gasoline-like source of energy. In the past, researchers have used large vats to grow algae from which to draw the biofuel, but in their project, Etemadi and Keshari focused on the fact that in large vats, light can only hit the top layer of the algae. They used fiber optics to deliver light below the surface of the algae so there can be more energy produced.

“We’re not doing something new,” Etemadi said. “We’re just doing it in a more efficient way.”

According to SISCA program manager Ursina Kohler, the awards were developed in 2008 to harness student enthusiasm toward crafting real-world solutions for some of the today’s greatest sustainability challenges.

“The SISCA winners from University of California, Berkeley were chosen because their projects represented innovative thinking, interdisciplinary work and a potential for significant sustainability impact,” Kohler said. “I am amazed at the creativity and enthusiasm of Berkeley’s SISCA winners.”

Sanjay Wagle, an expert on energy who formerly worked at the U.S. Department of Energy, said Etemadi and Keshari’s new process could generate about twice as much algae from a single vat as the traditional method. Wagle said that there are still other issues with the biofuel process but described the fiber-optic development as “a big piece of the puzzle.”

Etemadi has already drawn significant attention. He was on Forbes’ 2011 “30 Under 30” list of rising stars in science and innovation and has since developed innovations in medical devices as well.

“Collaboration is becoming so important.,” Etemadi said. “The era of the one person doing everything on their own is ending. This is really what I like about Berkeley. It embodies the spirit of working together.”