In the past few years, the Biobased Economy has firmly anchored itself in society. Biomass is no longer primarily used as an alternative energy source; important components such as proteins, sugars and fats are extracted from biomass via biorefinery to develop biobased materials, chemicals and fuels. With a strong agricultural and chemical sector, the Netherlands holds all the right cards to make the Biobased Economy successful.
The future of the Biobased Economy was not always this bright, according to René Wijffels, Professor in Bioprocess Engineering at Wageningen UR. He was one of a select number of pioneers who first saw the benefits of the Biobased Economy. From the turn of the millennium, they started using waste flows such as straw and breaking down materials like grass and wood (biorefinery). Ten years ago, Wijffels was almost alone in working with ‘his’ algae; initially from the perspective of high-value products such as pigments. Over the past decade he has found more opportunities for algae as a sustainable, competitive source of ‘commodities’ such as fuel, proteins, fats and sugars.
Decreasing cost price
Wijffels and his research team are a great example of how fast the Biobased Economy has developed. “Nowadays our algae produce twice as much biomass as ten years ago – up to four times even in the lab,” says Wijffels at the AlgaePARC pilot facility. “They also produce five times as many fats, which can be used to replace fish oil, make margarine and soap, and be converted into fuels such as biodiesel. From a cost perspective we are now approaching our main competitor: palm oil.”
And this is before the ‘Algae Professor’ has even started talking about the proteins that the green-coloured biomass produces in addition to the fats. These proteins can be used directly as nutritional protein or as functional proteins such as emulsifiers in sauces and soups. Last but not least, the third catch consists of sugars which are used to make building blocks for bioplastics.
Wijffels is convinced that by 2015 the cost price of producing one kilogram of algae will be just one euro. “If we can then use biorefinery to fraction protein and oil, we will be approaching the cost price of oil production by means of palm oil. In 2025 we will be below half a euro. At that time there will be factories on marginal soils such as deserts that spit out fats without too much transport or manpower required. “Imagine a unit similar to solar panels,” Wijffels explains. “They function without having to do much with it.”
Of course there is still need for a lot more research into the production of algae, biorefinery and (genetic) modification of algae within the cooperation of the current conglomerate of fifty companies. This research is no longer exclusively being performed in research facilities such as AlgaePARC in Wageningen (which is fast approaching its three-year anniversary). Wijffels: “Further insights and breakthroughs in technology should occur directly in demonstration factories. The lab often offers ideal circumstances which are different from the processes in the factories.”
Fed with seawater supplemented with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphate, the algae will directly extract CO2 from the atmosphere in a more efficient way, and produce even more fats in the future, Wijffels expects. “In the reactor they will live on the same water for a year instead of needing fresh water every three months.
The perspective is huge. In 2005, Wijffels and Maria Barbosa calculated that a surface area of 9.5 million hectares of algae (approximately the size of Portugal) would be sufficient to provide all the transport fuels in the 26 EU member states. Efficiency improvements have reduced this estimate to six million hectares; the size of the Netherlands and Belgium. The production costs of algae have more than halved, while the yield of several harvested components already exceeds the costs.
Developments in the Biobased Economy will create considerable employment on a local level. The Centre for Biobased Economy (a partnership between Wageningen UR and several Dutch Universities for Applied Sciences) calculated that the EU goal of 30 percent of green raw materials in 2030 would result in 10,000 jobs in research and processing alone. “This seems a good way to motivate students to follow a biobased education,” Wijffels says. Another benefit is extra employment in countless factories worldwide.
It is generally accepted that algae do not compete with agricultural land or tropical rainforests, in contrast to rapeseed and palm oil. Algae can easily be grown on marginal soils, on the fringes of industrial estates or at sea, Wijffels adds. “South American, North African and Asian countries have the best qualifications with regard to the number of sun hours required.” René Wijffels believes it is important that all available knowledge is widely disseminated. “A more sustainable economy will become more interesting to all countries around the world in the long run.”