From pollution to products

Written by Dr. Foo Su Chern, School of Science

What is your Research About?

Foo Su ChernMy research goal is to make microalgae more accessible, as a food source for humans. This will be achieved in two ways. First by revealing the full potential of tropical microalgae and secondly, establishing effective microalgal-based biorefinery routes to strengthen the circular bioeconomy. A good circular bioeconomy model should fulfil three crucial criteria i.e., create green jobs for the society, boost economic growth and cause minimal impact to the environment.

Why is it important?

The increase in global human population will create the need for alternative food and energy sources. Photosynthetic microalgae convert inorganic CO2 into organic carbon i.e. biomass and synthesises bioactive compounds like carotenoids (e.g. fucoxanthin, beta-carotene) (Fig 1). More than that, microalgae has faster growth rate and capture 50 times more carbon than terrestrial plants (Singh et al., 2019) and is perhaps, the only feasible carbon neutral biomass to maintain and reduce the 420 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 currently in our atmosphere.

microalgae

What are the outcomes or potential outcomes?

Our past work showed fucoxanthin from the diatom, Chaetoceros calcitrans to impart antioxidant (Foo et al., 2017) and anti-cancer (Foo et al., 2019) properties. This year, we demonstrate a micro-encapsulating formulation to slow down carotenoid degradation (Foo et al., 2020). Our next plan is to further elucidate the fucoxanthin degradation pathway using modern analytical tools. To advance my research goal, I look forward to strengthening existing collaborations and making new collaborative partnerships in new research fields.

Is there Global and Societal Impact?

My research advocates the UN SDGs, and this is demonstrated in different impact facets. Firstly, new findings can take many pathways from publications to poster/oral presentation. Importantly, I believe that introducing undergraduate students to research early could spark their interest. This is done via research-led teaching where I share findings in the teaching unit SCI1800 (Introduction to Environmental Sustainability). Secondly, microalgae cultivation is a form of carbon mitigation while simultaneously producing microalgae biomass that is not only useful but sustainable (SDG 7, 13). In the long term, designed PBRs could be retrofitted to factories, buildings, and homes to make cities more resilient and sustainable (SDG 11). This in turn can benefit the society through the creation of green jobs. Finally, promotion of better health and well-being (SDG 3) can be achieved by enhancing the nutritional profile of common food products like yogurt or ice cream using microalgae extracts. It is envisioned in the long term that my research can serve as important milestone for biorefineries, closing the loop for a circular bioeconomy and propelling our nation towards sustainability development.