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Algal Biofuels: An Emerging Renewable Energy

Jakob Nalley, W.K. Kellogg Biological Station

In this activity, students explore the basic living requirements of algae (phytoplankton)through hands-on experience and an interactive game. Students investigate what algal biofuels are, how they are made, where they can grow, and, most importantly, why this topic should be investigated. Algal biofuels are an emerging source of renewable energy.

Lesson takes about one 50-min class period. For implementation projection compound microscopes are needed.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 4 Cross Cutting Concepts, 2 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 3 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 4 Cross Cutting Concepts, 1 Science and Engineering Practice

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • This is a great activity that could be adjusted for a variety of grade levels - elementary thru high school. If students aren't able to collect samples, then the activity can still be modified to remain engaging.
  • Activity likely requires guidance for the students by the instructor.
  • Students need background information about phytoplankton and chemistry.

About the Science

  • Activity introduces algal biofuels as an emerging (and potentially very productive) renewable energy source. All of the scientific information presented via accompanying PowerPoint presentation and other text appears to be written by the developer; other sources and references need to be supplemented.
  • Comments from expert scientist:
    Scientific strengths: Very good basic introduction to the science of photosynthesis using algae, including the use of group exercises. Good introduction to the process of biofuel production.
    Suggestions: In the powerpoint and prezi presentations, carbon dioxide (CO2) required for algal photosynthesis is depicted as coming from smokestacks. This is misleading because the CO2 required for photosynthesis would presumably be available (naturally) without the smokestacks (I assume this is a depiction of a power plant smokestack and burning of fuels, fossil or other). Also, in the powerpoint presentation, the smokestack picture has been 'photoshopped' transforming the smoke plume into the letters CO2. While it's a cute use of photoshop, the great majority of smoke visible from a smokestack is condensing water vapor, and not CO2. As a teaching tool for photosynthesis, the smokestack pictures should be removed and replaced with something indicating that the CO2 simply comes from the atmosphere. Another slide could depict the origins the atmospheric CO2.

About the Pedagogy

  • Activity includes 1) a PowerPoint presentation delivered by the instructor, with a script for each slide. Questions are posed to the students but no answer keys or resources are provided to answer the questions; 2) viewing of algal specimens under microscopes are provided - without additional guidance for instructor or students about what to do other than look; 3) Detailed and complex Prezi presentation about biofuel production included. (Suggestion to walk students through the overall diagram and each zoom-in); 4) a game about environmental needs of various phytoplankton species.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • This resource is very easy to use and straight forward.
  • PowerPoint and Prezi presentations are easy to access and image quality of accompanying photos is excellent.
  • Phytoplankton species are specific to Michigan.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

MS-LS1.C1:Plants, algae (including phytoplankton), and many microorganisms use the energy from light to make sugars (food) from carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water through the process of photosynthesis, which also releases oxygen. These sugars can be used immediately or stored for growth or later use.

MS-LS2.A3:Growth of organisms and population increases are limited by access to resources.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 4

Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Stability and Change, Scale, Proportion and Quantity

MS-C3.5:Phenomena that can be observed at one scale may not be observable at another scale.

MS-C4.2: Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy, matter, and information flows within systems.

MS-C5.2: Within a natural or designed system, the transfer of energy drives the motion and/or cycling of matter.

MS-C7.4:Systems in dynamic equilibrium are stable due to a balance of feedback mechanisms.

Science and Engineering Practices: 2

Developing and Using Models, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

MS-P2.4:Develop and/or revise a model to show the relationships among variables, including those that are not observable but predict observable phenomena.

MS-P6.2:Construct an explanation using models or representations.

High School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 3

HS-ESS3.C:Human Impacts on Earth Systems

HS-LS1.C1:The process of photosynthesis converts light energy to stored chemical energy by converting carbon dioxide plus water into sugars plus released oxygen.

HS-LS2.B2:Plants or algae form the lowest level of the food web. At each link upward in a food web, only a small fraction of the matter consumed at the lower level is transferred upward, to produce growth and release energy in cellular respiration at the higher level. Given this inefficiency, there are generally fewer organisms at higher levels of a food web. Some matter reacts to release energy for life functions, some matter is stored in newly made structures, and much is discarded. The chemical elements that make up the molecules of organisms pass through food webs and into and out of the atmosphere and soil, and they are combined and recombined in different ways. At each link in an ecosystem, matter and energy are conserved.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 4

Scale, Proportion and Quantity, Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Stability and Change

HS-C3.3:Patterns observable at one scale may not be observable or exist at other scales.

HS-C4.3:Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

HS-C5.2:Changes of energy and matter in a system can be described in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system.

HS-C7.3:Feedback (negative or positive) can stabilize or destabilize a system.

Science and Engineering Practices: 1

Developing and Using Models

HS-P2.3:Develop, revise, and/or use a model based on evidence to illustrate and/or predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system

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