Algae and microalgae blooms hold enormous promise for new pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and energy products. But producing algae in large quantities requires a delicate balance between light, temperature and humidity, and has always been a challenge for industry.
This all changed when the Austrian company ecoduna developed a prototype photobioreactor for the industrial production of micro-algae. Now, through the EU-funded project PHOBIOR (‘An innovative photobioreactor for the production of micro algae with high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids’), ecoduna is working with partner Energiepark Bruck to upscale the prototype to production scale.
The project’s goal is to demonstrate ecoduna’s technology can guarantee a constant supply of algae under ideal light conditions and with the ideal nutrient composition for the production of omega-3 fatty acids for human nutrition. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to human nutrition and as a supplement are currently sourced from fish oil.
PHOBIOR’s sustainable solution could provide an alternative to producing omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil and take the pressure off dwindling fish stocks.
Photobioreactors work by amplifying photoactive volume considerably, reducing the energy and water currently needed to cultivate algae and enhancing quality.
The company’s photobioreactor technology uses a patented rotating ‘hanging gardens’ design which tracks the movement of the sun to ensure optimal light exposure. This design feature dilutes the light, ensuring light exposure will never be too high for ideal growth. Algae are thereby positioned in the sunlight at a very flat angle.
The system also ensures a total absorption of CO2 by the algae. No carbon dioxide can escape and all the energy needed for integration is used by the system, reducing running costs.
Apart from omega-3 production, ecoduna’s design will support the growing range of industries that either use algae as a raw materials or benefit from their production in some other way – for water treatment or carbon capture and storage, for example.
PHOBIOR’s industrial-sized photo-bioreactor plant, the first of its kind, was opened in October 2012 at the Energiepark Bruck an der Leitha in Austria.
Ecoduna predicts that the success of the PHOBIOR production unit will spur the construction and sale of hundreds of units in coming years.
“The hanging gardens and the algae oil containing omega-3 represent our main products,” says ecoduna’s sales manager David Bernhard. “Other high-value products such as beauty creams are on the horizon too.”
The company is also participating in a Danish research project that uses microalgae produced in a photobioreactor to clean industrial wastewater.
However ecoduna is focused on using its photobioreactor for producing algae for omega-3 fatty acid extraction as the most promising application.
“In the long run, after further technology improvements and cost reductions, we can contribute towards using algae oil for energy, bioplastics, and water treatment,” explains Bernhard.
Meanwhile, in the shorter term, the market is also likely to see other algae-derived pharmaceutical and nutritional products, such as therapeutic proteins, antimicrobials, antivirals and antifungals.
“We are very happy so far with the results regarding oil content and growth rates,” says Bernhard. “With the diluted light and the continuous process in our ‘hanging gardens’ photobioreactor technology, we have invented the perfect environment for microalgae to grow.”
The PHOBIOR team foresees research continuing beyond the end of the project.
“We aim to increase automation of the process and we’re learning more about the behaviour of different algae strains every day,” says Bernhard. “This learning curve has led directly to the software we are developing.”
Initial results have already drawn the attention of other researchers, industry, the media and even the general public.
“We’re sharing our knowledge and experience with scientists and the industry,” says Bernhard. “The production of omega-3 fatty acids will be part of the story in the coming years – with a few more years to go before we move on to energy production.”
PHOBIOR is due to end in October 2013 and received almost EUR 1.1 million in funding from the EU.
– Project factsheet
Data Source Provider: PHOBIOR
Document Reference: Based on information from PHOBIOR and interview with ecoduna sales manager David Bernhard
Subject Index: Industrial Manufacture; Life Sciences; Medicine, Health; Sustainable development