The sun: the engine of life

New fuel for aviation

When crude oil runs out, light might help aircraft continue to fly. Professor Thomas Brück from the department of Industrial Biocatalysis at TU München is working on this. Here, biologists, chemists and pharmacists along with engineers are investigating how to accelerate the growth of algae with artificial sunlight. The researchers discovered that the algae cultivate in nature only in water with extremely high concentrations of salt (two to three times the concentration of sea water) and high solar radiation. Together with the company FUTURELED (, the researchers are testing which lighting and climate conditions best reproduce these so-called extremophiles in the lab. To do this, they employ colored light-emitting diodes (LEDs) with a wavelength spectrum between 400 and 800 nanometers.

But why are the researchers focusing on these extremophile algae? “Algae can produce biomass up to ten times faster than the fastest-growing terrestrial plants, such as corn or soybeans. It is therefore very interesting for industry,” says Thomas Brück, the project director. In nature, these special saltwater algae species grow particularly in South Australia, Lebanon and the Bahamas. From the algae, the scientists extract proteins and fats, whose energy density is particularly high. Precisely these fats can be manufactured into fuel for aircraft.

"We have found that certain types of algae grow better if you provide them with a higher proportion of blue or red light," said Dr. Daniel Garbe, a research assistant on the project. Meanwhile, the researchers have established an algae-growing facility in Ottobrunn, near Munich. In this experimental station, algae are cultured on a larger scale under realistic simulations of lighting and climate conditions of selected global locations (e.g. southern Europe, northern Africa or the southwestern United States), and their fats “harvested” and processed. This is a first step towards environmentally friendly “avgas” for the future.