The future of Honda manufacturing, and perhaps our planet, may be up on the roof of a laboratory here in Tochigi, Japan. It’s a single-celled green algae and it can eat twice its weight in carbon dioxide in about three to five days and then be turned into fuel, food or plastic.
There are many different classes of algae, but the organism growing on the roof of Honda’s laboratory, and in test tubes below, is called Chlamydomonas Reinhardtii, nicknamed “Dreamo” for short. It’s adapted from algae purchased from the University of Texas. In Japanese, “Mo” means algae, and ‘dream’ is part of the company’s slogan, hence the name.
As anyone who has neglected to clean a pool knows, algae can grow fast, and Dreamo has been genetically modified to grow up to five times faster than ordinary microalgae.
To do this, Dreamo needs sunlight and water, which is why it’s up on the roof in thin, flat panels, tipped toward the sun. These allow as much sunlight as possible to penetrate the water inside and encourage effective photosynthesis. While this is happening, the algae is absorbing CO2 emissions from the emissions of factories – two grams of carbon dioxide can be removed by every gram of Dreamo. Instead of the factory emissions being released into the air, it is filtered out and sent to the algae.
The temperature at the testing plant 140 kilometres north of Tokyo can drop to minus 5 degrees Celsius in winter and the water needs to be heated to avoid freezing, but the expense and energy for this are outweighed by the benefits of the algae. It can be collected every three days in summer and every five days in winter, and can then be dried and used as either food or fuel.
“It can be eaten, and it’s rich and creamy,” says Nozomi Fukushima, Dreamo development manager for Honda Research & Development Co., Ltd. though it’s more likely to be used as a raw material in animal food, cosmetics or pharmaceuticals.
Inside the algae cells, the components are either up to 69-per-cent protein or up to 60-per-cent carbohydrate. “We can change the composition from protein to carbohydrate by adjusting the amount of nitrogen we apply in its growth,” she says. “It takes just three days. Then we can make plastic from it, or we can make fuel for aircraft.”
When the algae is mostly protein, an enzyme can be added that makes it simple to extract the starch, which can then be used as food or a food additive.
When the algae is mostly carbohydrate, this can be extracted as glucose and ethanol, which can be converted into either plastic resin or jet fuel.
While many variants of microalgae can be used for ethanol production, their cell walls are usually thick and protective and must be dissolved or destroyed in some way. The Dreamo cell walls, says Fukushima, are thin and do not form a barrier, making the process much simpler.
Algae has long been used for its various benefits, but it’s always been difficult to cultivate. It needs comparatively clean water and warm temperatures, and the growth solution would last only two or three cycles before needing to be replaced. This makes it expensive to produce. Fukushima says the Dreamo algae are much hardier, and there can be as many as 12 cycles of growth in the same solution, lasting almost three months.
Could the Dreamo strain be dangerous if it’s released accidently into the wild? Fukushima says it will only thrive in its artificially optimized environment.
“We once made an experiment of releasing Dreamo into a totally isolated pond in one of Honda’s facilities,” she says. “We watched the change carefully for two months, but Dreamo did not grow at all. Natural lakes and rivers have their own ecosystem that’s suitable for the environment where locally optimized organisms live. Dreamo would not survive in the natural competition of a natural environment.”
Honda says it is moving ahead with the trials of its patented Dreamo algae, and will ship collected CO2 from its factory boilers for tests in cultivation plants in Southeast Asia and Japan. It may be a while yet before the little green organisms make their way into your gas tank, or onto your plate, but when they do, you’ll probably never notice. The difference is, the air just might be a little cleaner than it was before.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.