Saving the world with algae research

by Caroline Erickson, University of Michigan Journalism Student

The lab smells like chlorine and disinfectant, leftover from the preparatory stage of the pilot run of the experiment. Glowing aquariums line the walls, ready for the first phase of the investigative alternative bio-fuel project to begin. Cardinale’s lab at the University of Michigan is focusing on biodiversity and productivity among algae species in aquatic environments.

2013-09-26 15.58.53         Cardinale has a firm handshake, and the warm smile of a man with incredible passion and drive for his work. Equations and flowcharts are printed neatly over the enormous whiteboards in a tidy office on the University of Michigan’s campus where Bradley Cardinale works to answer one of the most daunting questions of current biological science: how many species do we need to preserve in order for our planet to survive?

He is currently an associate professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, with a Ph. D. in biology from University of Maryland. He also has a distinguished history of awards as a faculty member at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Cardinale’s lab recently received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation  to pursue the answers to sustainable biofuel. He is looking to find a renewable, liquid alternative to fossil fuels. His lab is a one-of-a-kind, Cardinale says. It is a world-class facility that allows him to investigate “how a stream or lake breathes” and the cycling oxygen and nutrients by algae.

Together with the students and staff of his lab, Cardinale is on a mission to create a biofuel that is greener and more productive than ethanol, which is often expensive, has limited availability, and contains less energy than gasoline, per volume. The researchers are looking at different algae species compositions to find the winning combination that creates the greatest amount of biomass and therefore, combustible biofuel. As the end of the fossil fuel age nears, Cardinale is looking to find alternative forms of energy. Unlike fossil fuels, the algae is renewable, it can be grown and regrown, it won’t run out, and it doesn’t harm the environment.

Working with biology and the environment was not always the plan, however. As a freshman at Arizona State University, he was unenthusiastically pursuing a chemical engineering degree, and never enjoyed mathematics. The summer after his freshman year, he took a job doing biological sampling in the northern temperate lakes of Michigan and Wisconsin, on a whim. Getting to work outdoors in scenic places was where he fell in love with aquatic biology.

2013-09-26 16.00.44         “I couldn’t believe people got paid to do this,” he said. “This was a guy who was working outdoors and was going to change the world and that got me excited.” This newfound biological knowledge was going to have an impact on the way humanity persisted and co-existed with its fellow species. He realized that conservation biology was central to the future of a healthy planet and he was excited to have found his passion in a line of work that was not a desk job.

Now, each day for Cardinale is a sort of managed chaos where no two days are alike. Between conducting his research, teaching courses at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, and contributing to public education, he rarely experiences a dull moment.

“Brad’s task is not minuscule, and he is very committed to the work,” says Michelle Busch, an undergraduate researcher in the Cardinale Lab. “He runs a very cool lab, and he’s very proud of it,” say’s Busch.

Ordinarily, Cardinale enjoys playing basketball and golfing in order to unwind, but with two young children, he finds himself focusing on family in his time away from work. He speaks fondly of time spent outdoors with his kids, hiking and fishing. With a proud laugh and a grin, he says his daughter already seems to have an environmentalist streak of her own.

Michigan Senator Casperson has sponsored legislation, the Anti-Biodiversity act, in order to empower the growth of the timber industry in Michigan, “About once a week, my four-year-old daughter will have me sit down at the computer and help her write a letter to Senator Casperson,” says Cardinale, “asking him to please not cut down the trees.” She even mailed him a signed copy of Dr. Suess’s book, The Lorax.

“We need to tell people if you want to keep living like this, you better start conserving species, or you’re going to lose them,” says Cardinale. He is determined to put a figure on the number of species required for sustained human life on this planet, a healthy future for his children, and the steps required to conserve those species. “We’re 10 years away from being able to do that and I’m not changing course until we get there.”

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