Two UC Davis students and two professors hold big check up in front of a step and repeat with AlgaePrize logo in green and white
The UC Davis Giant Kelp Team accepts a $10,000 check at the AlgaePrize Competition for their research into sustainable algae-processing methods. Pictured, from left: Professor Daniela Barile, Ph.D., graduate student in food science and technology Truc Pham, graduate student in biological systems engineering Mia Gaiero, Professor Juliana De Moura Bell, Ph.D. (Courtesy of Mia Gaiero)

Kelping It Green: UC Davis Research Team Wins Awards at First-Ever AlgaePrize Competition

Biological systems engineering graduate student Mia Gaiero teamed up with food science and technology graduate student Truc Pham to dive deep into algae for the inaugural AlgaePrize Competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office. The two earned a place among the top finalists, as well as $10,000 and the best poster award at an awards ceremony in April.   

Two UC Davis students wear green button up shirts and lanyards while standing near a research poster
From left: Mia Gaiero and Truc Pham stand with their presentation poster, which won the AlgaePrize award for best poster. (Courtesy of Mia Gaiero)

The contest was launched in January 2022, tasking 64 teams of students from high schools, colleges and universities nationwide with creating innovative ways of processing and producing algae for more cost-effective production of algal biofuels and bioproducts. Algae, which stores energy from sunlight, is fast-growing, and can be used in a variety of products, including food, fertilizer, fuel, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. 

Gaiero and Pham began investigating more sustainable methods of extracting nutrient-rich compounds from algae to use in foods for humans and animals in March of last year under the mentorship of Biological and Agricultural Engineering Professor Juliana De Moura Bell, Ph.D., and Food Science and Technology Professor Daniela Barile, Ph.D.  

Gaiero, whose emphasis is sustainable extractions and downstream processes, and Pham, whose emphasis is analytical method development, found that using water as a solvent paired with varying extraction technologies proved to be faster, more cost-effective and more sustainable than the current extraction processes. In addition to being slow and expensive, current methods also use flammable and toxic materials.   

Group of five people stand on a stage where two students are being presented an award
Pham and Gaiero accept their award. Also pictured, Professor Bell and competition judges Christy Sterner, technology manager for Advanced Algal Systems, and Ira Levine, president and board chair of the Algae Foundation. (Courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

The two researchers, aka the UC Davis Giant Kelp Team, presented their findings at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, during the AlgaePrize Competition weekend, April 14-16. Titled Kelping it Green: Innovative Analytical Tools for Eco-Friendly Giant Kelp Processing, Gaiero and Pham were among 13 other teams from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. 

Pham and Gaiero were one of four top finalist teams to be named Champion and win $10,000, to be spent on algae-related work. They also won the award for best poster and were invited to present their project at the 2023 Algae Biomass Summit, which will be held in Madison, Wisconsin, Oct. 9-11, and will welcome leading innovators, scientists and policymakers in the field of algae and seaweed.

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