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May 27, 2017

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Researcher converts 'green bug' into green energy, food additive

TOKYO--As a graduate student, Kengo Suzuki used to spend hours in the lab studying ways to speed up the growth of a variety of algae known as euglena.

Today, the 32-year-old helms research that has not only turned the tiny single-cell organism into a key source of fuel for powering jet planes in future, but also made it a nutritious addition to pasta sauce and food bars.

In Japan, the 0.1mm-long, egg-shaped organism is commonly known as midorimushi — literally, green bug — because of its color.

Euglena contains an oily substance that can be processed into biofuel. The algae, which lives in fresh water, was first successfully cultivated in bulk in 2005.

A start-up that Suzuki helped to set up in August 2005 has already successfully extracted oil from the algae.

The start-up, which goes by the name Euglena, has a laboratory within the grounds of prestigious Tokyo University.

Suzuki, who is head of research and development, and eight research staff are currently engaged in finding ways to grow the algae commercially and to turn euglena-derived oil into jet fuel.

What makes euglena so eminently suitable as a source of a new type of recyclable energy is its huge capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, which it turns into food and oil through a chemical process.

"Compared to oil palm, for instance, euglena produces more than 10 times as much oil per unit area," said Suzuki, who graduated from Tokyo University's Faculty of Agriculture.

"The oil from euglena can also be easily processed into jet fuel," he added.

The reason is that the oily substance in Euglena has a molecular structure that makes it suitable for use as jet fuel.

Unlike biofuels produced from sugar cane or corn that compete with other crops for land and consequently drive up food prices, euglena has no impact on food production as it grows in water, Suzuki pointed out.

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