BOZEMAN, MONT--Wanted: Algae of the most adventurous type. Must grow in slime on scratchy plastic discs. A willingness to be periodically purged in favor of new recruits required. Above all, must have a hearty appetite for carbon dioxide and a tolerance for scalding temperatures. This is roughly the job description Keith Cooksey, professor of microbiology at Montana State University-Bozeman, carries with him as searches the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park this winter.
Cooksey's on a mission, of sorts. Well, a subcontract, really. He's part of a three member team looking for ways of naturally lowering carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Besides Cooksey, the threesome includes David Bayless, a mechanical engineer at Ohio University, and researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Helping Cooksey at MSU is postdoctoral researcher Igor Brown.
Together, the group has $1-million from the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Cooksey and Brown's portion of the project is about $100,000 a year for three years. Brown also has support from the Montana State University Thermal Biology Institute, which similarly studies unique microbes from Yellowstone Park.
While the coal-fueled power industry has reduced particulate and sulfur emissions, it still produces high amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, now believed to be undesirably warming the planet.
Ohio University is experimenting with ways of absorbing carbon dioxide with algae. Like other plants, algae use the gas as part of their metabolic process called photosynthesis. Ohio University has piloted Bayless's technology using algae from the desert. But they believe there's a better organism out there, and now it's Cooksey's job to look. "If you want thermotolerant, we're in a good place to look," Cooksey says, referring to nearby Yellowstone National Park. The park is well known for heat-loving organisms that live in and around park hot springs.