Failed Experiment Leads to Serendipity

How Algae is Converted into Energy
How Algae is Converted into Energy

As many of you know, The IB Group 4 project was not too long ago for us. Our goal was to investigate how to help better the fight against poverty; so, my group decided to investigate a renewable source of energy, more specifically, algae. Now algae had already been known as a bio-fuel, but there are some difficulties in cultivating and growing enough algae for this to be a sufficient substitute for more commonly used fuels. We were to determine what pH value of water would the algae growth rate be the greatest. After much investigation, we determined that it would be best to test pH levels of 8-12. We took 5 different samples of the same species of algae and placed them into 5 different containers of different pH levels (from 8 to 12). Each container had the same variables affecting the algae growth; the humidity was constant, the amount of sunlight was constant, the amount of nutrients was constant. Naturally, it is our duty as scientists to ensure that the variables are controlled to ensure the data we collect retain its integrity.

But when deciding how to determine which algae had grown the fastest, we were stumped. We could not take the mass of the algae because algae absorb water and we do not want water masses and we could not measure the volume of the algae because it does not take a rigid shape. We had met our first roadblock.

Finally, Mr. Smith suggested that we use a bomb calorimeter to measure the energy given off when the algae are burned. Theoretically, the more massive the algae, the more energy will be given off. So we were back into action mode. We extracted the algae from their containers and placed each sample into an incubator to evaporate any remaining water.

The next day, all the water had evaporated from the algae. We promptly set up the calorimeter, stuck a needle into a cork, prepped a stopwatch, prepared the distilled water and lit the algae. It did not burn. We poked and prodded for minutes at a time but the algae refused to catch fire. We had failed. Lost in a world of our own misery my team looked down, ashamed of our brief role as scientists as I continued to light the algae without reward. And then something clicked. I could see the heads of my group mates slowly rise up as they realized what we have created. Algae that does not burn! More excited than ever, we decided to test our flame resistant plant by placing it on a stack of very flammable paper towels and lighting it. What we found was astounding. Not only, were the algae flame resistant, but it also helps preserve what was underneath. The paper towel surrounding the algae were all burnt, but the paper towel directly underneath was untouched.


But why is this important? How does it help fight poverty? Usually, a substance known as Asbestos is integrated into building material to give that object a fire resistive property, but what my group 4 had done was create an organic substitute for asbestos. Though we do not know any side effects from using the algae to retard flames, we do understand that long term exposure to asbestos causes cancerous diseases as well as non-cancerous diseases to the throat, lungs and in some cases, the heart (shown above). We also must reinforce the fact that Algae is an organic substance, meaning it is both easily accessed and environmentally friendly. Hopefully, our findings are significant enough to call for further investigation such as determining how to reproduce such algae, and determining possible health risks from exposure. Perhaps in the future, houses will be lined with algae instead of asbestos.


“Algae Growing Conditions.” Growing Algae. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <>.

Kriscenski, Ali. “POWER YOUR CAR WITH ALGAE: Algae Biocrude by LiveFuels.”Inhabitat – Green Design Will Save the World. 22 Oct. 2007. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <>.

“What Are Asbestos-Related Lung Diseases?.” National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, May 01, 2011. Web. 25 Sept 2011. <>.

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