Bright pink-orange microalgae found in salt lakes and coastal waters could become a renewable source of food, plastics, health products and fuel as a result of new research announced recently.
The University of Greenwich is leading a €10m international project to develop the microalga Dunaliella as a sustainable raw material that captures CO2 and can grow in some of the world’s harshest environments.
The project will build a biorefinery called the ‘D-Factory’ which is going to turn every part of the alga into something useful. Algae are known for their ability to convert CO2 and sunlight into chemical energy five times faster than crops grown in soil. This particular alga is able to produce up to 80 per cent of its mass as fuel but is currently too expensive to cultivate for fuel alone. However it also produces a range of compounds of great interest in pharmaceutical, cosmetic, nutraceutical and other applications – and this may provide the solution.
Project leader Professor Pat Harvey, from the university’s Faculty of Engineering & Science, explains: “The race is on to develop a broader spectrum of compounds from algae, which can be turned into high-value products including food and medicines. “If we can make algae bio-refineries economically viable, we will have developed a new industry founded on an environmentally friendly raw material which is also sustainable. The potential is huge.
The research brings together 13 research institutions and businesses from eight countries, including world-leading experts in the biochemistry of Dunaliella, in large-scale cultivation of microalgae, in novel harvesting technologies and in bioprocessing development.
Together they aim to set a world benchmark for a biorefinery based on microalgae. Plans include the largest commercial cultivation of the single-cell organisms, in water raceways, lakes and photo-bioreactors.
The project hopes to demonstrate the business case for global investment in algae bio-refineries, and in large-scale production of microalgae, within three years in order to raise investment for the first prototype D-Factory in Europe.
The Dunaliella alga has been chosen because it produces a wide range of compounds, appropriate for the ‘biorefinery’ concept which aims to use every element of a biomass. It can cope with extreme conditions, from salt caves in the Antarctic, to salt pans in the tropics. The high salinity and light intensity turns the microalgae orange by producing protective carotenoids. The pink-orange of many salt lakes containing Dunaliella is intensified by the presence of archaea, fellow single-celled organisms.
The D-Factory, or CO2 algae biorefinery, is a four-year collaborative project with funding from the European Union’s FP7 Cooperation Work Programme.
The 13 D-Factory partners include:
Universities and research institutes: University of Greenwich, UK; National Technical University of Athens, Greece; Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg, Germany; Marine Biological Association, UK.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs): A4F AlgaFuel S.A., Portugal; Nature Beta Technologies, Israel; SPTechnical Research Institute of Sweden; Dynamic Extractions, UK; NateCO2, Germany; Instituto de Biologia Experimental e Tecnologica, Portugal; Evodos, Netherlands; Hafren Investments, UK; IN, Italy.
Professor Harvey is Head of Bioenergy Research at Greenwich and a noted authority on bioenergy systems, biomaterial processing and biofuel supply chains.