Professor Mathias Kolle (center) in discussion with MIT students. Photo credit: Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, MIT

Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security LAB (J-WAFS) Solutions has the mission of moving water and food technologies from labs at MIT into the commercial world, where they will improve the productivity, accessibility, and sustainability of the world’s water and food systems. J-WAFS awards seed grants of $100,000 per year for up to two years for innovative research that has the potential to have significant impact on these issues.

Mathias Kolle, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, is leading one of seven research projects recently awarded J-WAFS funding. Mathias aims to tackle the challenges of large-scale microalgae cultivation for food and fuel, and help turn microalgae into a sustainable and energy-efficient option for feeding a growing human population in the future.

The project is called “Multifunctional Light-Diffusing Fibers for Simultaneous Light Management and Fluid Transport in Microalgae Bioreactors.” The research aims to develop a new method for growing algae on an industrial scale that is economically sustainable and does not require large amounts of energy.

At its core is a new type of optical fiber that will enable them to distribute light and CO2 to microalgae cultures more effectively and efficiently. With the J-WAFS seed funding, they will design, build and test different variations of optical fibers. Their goal is to be able to control the light and CO2 that is delivered to all the algae – the fibers will take light and CO2 from the surface of the water and channel it down to those parts of the algae tank that have less access to light and CO2. They estimate that this method could save 50 percent or more of the energy currently required.

By August 2019, when this round of J-WAFS funding comes to an end, the researchers hope to have proven the concept that this technology is capable of supplying light and CO2 to algae cultures at large scale. Once they’ve achieved that, the next step is to commercialize the product, either as a spin-out of their research or by working with existing companies that have an interest in this field. They aim to begin talks with companies in the sector early in the process, so they can adapt their research to the actual needs of the market.