Story by Alex Salkever
Photos by Kyle Rothenborg
In an unremarkable parking lot behind the Manoa Innovation Center stand racks of green, liquid-filled tubes. They look like fluorescent light bulbs filled with glowing, bright green goop. This vibrant liquid, slimy and cool to the touch, could one day replace oil from the Middle East and power everything from motorcycles to fighter jets. It could create a supervitamin that enhances brain activity and optimizes health. It could feed millions upon millions of oysters, abalone and shrimp around the globe (thus, of course, feeding us). Clearly, this is no ordinary goop, and the laughing, redheaded woman tending it is no ordinary plant scientist.
A University of Hawai‘i professor, plant biologist and talented hybridizer, Heidi Kuehnle earned a reputation as a respected applied floriculturalist. She bred dozens of new types of orchids and anthurium, including the “Princess Aiko,” a diminutive pink flower that was the first scented anthurium ever released for commercial sale.
But five years ago, Kuehnle began applying her magical green thumb to an even greener crop.
Microalgae are tiny plants that inhabit the world’s fresh and salt waters; the varieties Kuehnle cultivates are all from the Hawaiian Islands. The leap from breeding orchids to algae is not a big one, at least from a biological perspective. Algae are plants and behave much like other flora, though with some key differences: They are the fastest-growing plants on the planet, able to double in mass several times a day. They’re comparatively easy to hybridize, and a biologist can develop strains that synthesize a variety of useful chemicals and oils. Taking advantage of these characteristics, as Kuehnle has, a tube of algae can become a supercharged factory for biodiesel, ethanol and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Armed with decades of experience and grant funding, Kuehnle set to work developing algae that could quickly and cleanly produce biofuels in concentrations as high as 50 percent of their biomass. Soon Kuehnle was breeding algae superior to most other strains in terms of resilience, productivity and malleability (three key attributes for commercial algae).
A business took shape in Kuehnle’s mind: She would grow algae, perfect them and sell them. In a world hungry for cleaner energy, algae had a lot more growth potential (pun intended) than bending orchids and anthurium to her will.
That Kuenhle landed in the microalgae business is something that, in hindsight, was perhaps a birthright. She grew up surrounded by science and innovation. Her father, Manfred Kuehnle, is an engineer who has patented numerous inventions—including underwater electric turbines and magnetic strips on credit cards—and also launched a handful of successful companies. Heidi grew up loving plants and earned a PhD in plant breeding from Cornell University in 1988. Diploma in hand, she landed in the Islands to take a post as junior professor at the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, where in addition to developing new flowers, she was a prolific scholar, authoring or co-authoring more than a hundred studies.
When Kuehnle decided to pursue algae, she collaborated with her father to engineer new cultivation systems. Together they developed new techniques to expedite hybridization, to make algae more robust and to endow them with the ability to grow in either fresh or saltwater ponds. Along the way Kuehnle identified and patented numerous strains of useful algae, species that already produced small quantities of desirable substances such as oils closely related to biodiesel. This early phase of her research was supported by more than $1 million in US government research grants, and soon her fledgling company, Kuehnle AgroSystems, was ready to play on a bigger field.