Florida Poly News:
Florida Polytechnic University researchers are exploring ways of using algae to make space travel more sustainable and energy efficient. The research project, funded by the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium (FSGC), focuses on using diatoms to increase the efficiency of solar cells and to also create a system to sustainably capture carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.
There are currently separate systems used in space travel to capture carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. This research could simplify the process creating a single system to do both.
“This research not only could lead to more energy efficient space missions through solar cell and capacitor enhancements, but it could also play a critical role in revolutionizing the way the very air astronauts breathe is rendered carbon dioxide-free,” said assistant professor of biology Dr. Melba Horton, who was awarded the FSGC grant.
Diatoms are a form of algae–invisible to the naked eye–with cell walls made of silica. Their unique properties, including the fact they are photosynthetic, make them useful for a variety of high-tech applications.
Juniors Geoffrey Doback and Christopher Scaduto designed a system that uses diatoms to absorb carbon dioxide, which in turn would produce oxygen. They did this by building a gas cell that would measure their findings when connected to a spectrometer located in one of the labs at Florida Poly’s Innovation, Science, and Technology Building.
Building the gas cell was no small task. Doback and Scaduto spent countless hours working on a design that eventually led to a device that was 3D printed on campus.
“It’s definitely encouraging how we’re not chemical engineers or biologists, but we were able to get that different perspective and apply our mechanical engineering background to improve current things we had nothing to do with originally,” said Doback, who is from Tampa, Florida.
Andres Regalado, a junior from Lehigh Acres, Florida, researched solar cells and what effect the application of diatoms had on their electrical efficiency. He said early testing showed signs of increased efficiency.
“There’s a lot of math and science that goes behind applying diatoms and increasing solar cell efficiency,” said Regalado. “Apart from diatoms, there’s coating and layering that goes into making a solar cell more efficient.”
The research was originally scheduled to conclude in October, but the FSGC has extended it to spring 2019 as a result of the positive findings with the carbon dioxide capture system.