Ohio University

Student researcher explores how algae can solve environmental problems

Published: April 20, 2021 Author: Jordan Schmitt

When Ed Drabold needed a topic for his high school science fair project, he decided to look into microalgae. Microalgae are a single-celled, photosynthetic organism that is invisible to the naked eye. Scientists and engineers have studied how it can be used as a renewable source, as algae can convert sunlight into a variety of products, from biofuels to biopharmaceuticals.

Years of studying microalgae led Drabold to Ohio University, where he majored in environmental studies through the Honors Tutorial College and continued his research. He has received several awards for his innovative work and has published his research findings in three academic papers — with more to come.

A judge who Drabold met during a school science fair ended up being an adviser at Ohio University who worked closely with Drabold on his research. Dr. David Bayless, a former Gerald Loehr Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is now the chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Missouri S&T.

Student researcher Ed Drabold
At the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment located at the Biochemistry Research Facility, OHIO student researcher Ed Drabold keeps samples of a microalgal culture in an incubator, which controls temperature and light exposure, so the organism can be used in repeatable experiments. Ben Siegel/Ohio University

Ed’s work could lead to a commercially viable way to clean up nutrient pollution in waterways while simultaneously recycling atmospheric carbon,” Bayless said. “Not only is he a really good researcher and hard worker, but he is always willing to help others and brings a positive energy to the team that helps us all when we could otherwise be discouraged.”

Drabold has been widely recognized for the research that he has been conducting for some time. The topic provides hope for new sources of renewable energy that can be used sustainably.

“Initially it was simply a shot in the dark — but as I started doing more research in the lab the complexities and potential intrigued me,” Drabold said about the research. “I just keep trying to dig deeper and amass as much understanding from every field. The application came later — when I worked with Honda my freshman year.”

Through Drabold’s experience studying microalgae, he had the opportunity to join a project with Honda Research & Development in Marysville, Ohio, during summer 2018 that aimed to capture the sustainable energy created by the organism. The project involved the installation of Honda’s first-ever algal farm. The team studied using algae in the manufacturing industry to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into new energy. Through assistance from Bayless, Drabold collaborated with Honda engineers Joel Agner and Daniel Sellars.

“That was the first time, to my knowledge, that anyone had used algae in the manufacturing industry as a way to capture CO2,” Drabold said. “It was a really great, unique experience.”

Following his participation with Honda’s research, Drabold created a technoeconomic model for capturing 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide — the amount produced in a year from the Honda Marysville plant. He is still interested in optimizing and capturing energy produced by algae throughout manufacturing.

As a result of the research conducted by the team at Honda, Drabold was invited to speak at The Algae Biomass Organization, the largest gathering of algae researchers in the world. He gave a talk titled “Integrated Biorefinery Systems Toward Commercial and Economic Viability.”

It takes a great deal of passion to juggle extracurricular research with a full curriculum of college courses. For Drabold, this is a normal aspect of student life. He used his freedom in the Honors Tutorial College program to access the necessary classes while continuing his research. In doing so, he worked on the development of a bio-design major that future HTC students will be able to use to study biology, technology and engineering simultaneously at OHIO.

“We were trying to figure out a degree that would be very multi-disciplinary. It would allow (a student) to really focus on research and go to the classes in different areas of OU that would allow them to have the background to do this research. A key point is that it is so amazingly multi-disciplinary, and that’s really required,” Drabold said.

During his sophomore year, Drabold was recognized as the 2018-2019 recipient of The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

“Ed's carbon capture research grew out of his commitment to address the environmental challenges we face in Appalachian Ohio. Working within the automotive industry, he developed ways to remove excess carbon in our atmosphere that are both environmentally conscious and economically viable,” said Dr. Chris Lewis, director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards.

Now Drabold is currently working on his senior thesis for the Honors Tutorial College, a review article towards field progress of continuous microalgae systems. While working on his thesis, he is continuing research on growing microalgae from food waste, gene expression and bioinformatics of algae.

Dr. Morgan Vis serves as a co-advisor for Drabold alongside Bayless. She is a professor in the Department of Environmental and Plant Biology. 

“Ed’s thesis is a review of all of the literature surrounding continuous systems for growing algae. He is taking a deep dive into all sorts of research areas from molecular biology to industrial systems looking for what is known and what still needs to be learned for commercialization of algae,” Vis said. “He is always eyeing how to better build the systems that are really important to solve environmental problems.”

Student researcher Ed Drabold
Drabold majors in environmental studies through the Honors Tutorial College. He has received several awards for his innovative research on microalgae. Ben Siegel/Ohio University

After graduating from Ohio University this spring, Drabold intends to pursue a doctorate in chemical engineering. He has recently accepted the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Drabold will begin the fellowship next fall under Dr. Yi Wang, professor of chemical engineering, at Auburn University. Drabold and Wang have discussed the student’s future research, which will involve creating process control models to control microalgae within continuous systems. Drabold is hopeful that the research will result in transformative changes to the biotechnology industry and environment.

“To do all of the things that we want to do as a human race, we need to be able to make all of our products more cheaply and efficiently,” Drabold said. “My ultimate career goal is, I want to realize that vision of making continuous systems, which I see is critical to making everything we make more energy-efficient and sustainable.”