Researcher biography

Centre for Solar Biotechnology: Prof Ben Hankamer is the founding director of the Solar Biofuels Consortium (2007) and Centre for Solar Biotechnology (2016) which is focused on developing next generation microalgae systems. These systems are designed to tap into the huge energy resource of the sun (>2300x global energy demand) and capture CO2 to produce a wide-range of products. These include solar fuels (e.g. H2 from water, oil, methane and ethanol), foods (e.g. health foods) and high value products (e.g. vaccines produced in algae). Microalgae systems also support important eco-services such as water purification and CO2 sequestration. The Centre is being launched in 2016/2017 and includes approximately 30 teams with skills ranging from genome sequencing through to demonstration systems optimsation and accompanying techno-economis and life cycle analysis. The Centre teams have worked extensively with industry.

Structural Biology: The photosynthetic machinery is the biological interface of microalgae that taps into the huge energy resource of the sun, powers the biosphere and produces the atmospheric oxygen that supports life on Earth. My team uses high resolution single particle analysis and electron tomography to solve the intricate 3D architecture of the photosynthetic machinery to enable structure guided design of high efficiency microalgae cell lines and advanced artificial solar fuel systems.

Research Interests

  • The Structural Biology of Photosynthesis
    Algae cells have evolved over ~3 billion years of natural selection to yield a diverse array of highly efficient, self-assembling, light-responsive membranes. These act as Nature’s solar interfaces, via which plants tap into the power of the sun. These interfaces contain nano-machinery to drive the photosynthetic light reactions which convert light from the sun into food, fuel and atmospheric oxygen to support life on Earth. This photosynthetic machinery is intricately arranged in 3D and has evolved to adjust dynamically (i.e. 4D: 3D & time) to changing light conditions to achieve optimal efficiency of solar energy conversion. Structural biology, in the form of cryo- electron microscopy, electron tomography, and single particle analysis therefore provide critical insights into this process and will increasingly facilitates structure guided design of new solar fuel systems.
  • Micro-algae biotechnology
    Algae tap into the power of the sun (> 2300 x total global energy demand) to produce biomass for CO2 water and nutrients. Consequently microalgae can be used for the following High value foods and pharmaceuticals: To develop algae based systems for the production of foods/nutraceuticals, vaccines, peptide therapeutics, novel antibiotics in algae. Reef protection/Bioremediation: To develop algae based bioremediation technologies (e.g. minimising nutrient runoff to the reef; phytomining). Solar Fuels: To develop economic algae based and bio-inspired solar fuel systems (e.g. solar power H2 from water for fuel cells).

Research Impacts

The Challenge: The global economy is valued at ~$114 Tn pa and is powered by the $6 Tn energy sector. 80% of global energy is used as fuels (only ~20% as electricity).

By 2050, expansion of the human population to > 9 billion people and continued global economic growth, will necessitate 50% more energy (International Energy Agency), 70% more food (UN), 50% more fresh water (OECD) and CO2 emissions cuts of 80% (IPCC) to maintain political, social, fuel and climate security.

Microalgae systems sit at the nexus of this challenge. They are rapidly growing microscopic solar driven ‘cell factories’ which can capture sunlight and CO2 and can grow in saline/low grade water to reduce greenhouse gas emission and produce O2, clean water and biomass. Depending on the species and process used, this bimass can yield a wide range of products. At the high value end micoalgae can be used to produce pharmaeutical and health food products such as omega-3 fatty acids and anti-oxidants. As systems and economic efficiencies are improved they can supply much larger commodity markets including renewable fuels as well as bioplastics and ‘green-chemical’ feedstocks.

Australia is uniquely positioned to benefit from such work on tackling the challenge of delivering cost-competitive solar fuel systems. It has vast lands, abundant solar irradiation, saline water resources and excellent infrastructure.

Our parallel structural biology work is focused on generating detailed molecular blueprints of photosynthetic interfaces, refined over 3 billion years of evolution, and to apply these design principles to the development of high-efficiency algal and bio-inspired artificial solar fuel systems at pilot-scale. This will benefit society by reducing its reliance on fossil fuels, and provide the basis for sustainable, long-term economic development.


  • Doctor of Philosophy, University of London
  • MSc, University of London
  • BSc(Hons), University of Liverpool