Environmental Engineering Team Named Finalist in Nationwide Algae Competition

Thursday, 04 May 2023
Four people pose in front of a table in a conference room

A Georgia Tech team was one of the four top finalists selected to win $10,000 in the 2022-2023 AlgaePrize Competition.

The competition is hosted by The U.S. Department of Energy's Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), in partnership with the Algae Foundation and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The team, comprised of PhD students Ben Gincley, Farhan Khan and undergraduate student Ananya Kumar, competed with their concept called PhycoSight— a low-cost, accurate and versatile automated platform to address algae-related problems, including combating the rapid proliferation of toxin-producing algae and optimizing industrial-scale cultivation of beneficial algae. The team is advised by Carlton S. Wilder Associate Professor Ameet Pinto.

For the AlgaePrize competition, PhycoSight's focus was set on a key problem in industrial algal agronomy. Existing methods to quantify algal lipid content—which is important for the production of consumer-facing products like omega-3 nutrient supplements and sustainable aviation fuels—are expensive, time-consuming, and require highly specialized technical expertise.

The PhycoSight team developed a novel approach using deep learning techniques to estimate lipid content in microalgae using microscopy data, which can dramatically reduce the capital and time costs associated with making these measurements. This means algae-based products can be produced more efficiently and for less money, improving the market competitiveness of these bioproducts.

The AlgaePrize Competition was launched in January 2022 and challenged 64 student teams with 307 individual competitors from high schools, colleges, and universities across the United States. The teams developed innovative solutions for algae production, processing, and new product development to lower the costs of producing algal biofuels and bioproducts.

PhycoSight was selected as one of the 15 national finalists in April 2022.  The team was awarded $5,000 from the Department of Energy, which the students have used to develop their project over the last year.

During the AlgaePrize Competition weekend, April 14-16, 2023, the finalists, from 11 states and Puerto Rico, showcased their projects to a panel of judges at NREL in Golden, Colorado.

PhycoSight was recognized as one of four top finalists teams. They received an engraved plaque and an additional $10,000 to develop their idea.

The grand champion team and the top four finalist teams will be invited to participate in the Algae Biomass Summit this fall to present their research and engage with summit participants from the national and international algae communities.

This isn’t the first time the PhycoSight team has found success with its innovative ideas. In 2022, the team won the Higginbotham Entrepreneurship Award in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Entrepreneurial Impact Competition. The $5,000 Higginbotham Prize recognizes students that have identified and tailored their concepts to specific end-users with an emphasis on bringing their concepts to market.

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With their ideas to improve road safety and track harmful algae growth, the winning teams demonstrated the breadth and capacity that civil and environmental engineers possess to improve the human condition.