Large-scale algae farming aimed exclusively at the production of bioplastics and bio-fuels is not on the agenda in the short term because the cost price is still too high. There are, however, plenty of opportunities for algae as a raw material for specific, high-quality products. And Wageningen scientists are continuing to learn much more about this ‘green gold’.
As part of the EU project SPLASH, a consortium led by Wageningen University & Research has been studying the production of bioplastics from algae since 2012. SPLASH focuses on the entire production chain; from algae cultivation to end products. Fundamental research into the biology of algae is an important part of SPLASH. The micro-factories produce valuable sugars, for example, which can be converted into building blocks such as adipic acid and furandicarboxylic acid. But how exactly do the algae produce these sugars? And which ‘route’ is most efficient? The research focuses on the Botryococcus braunii algae variety which produces the desired sugars.
A blueprint of the DNA has proven more difficult to establish than initially hoped says project leader Lolke Sijtsma from Wageningen University & Research: “It is quite the puzzle to separate algae from bacteria. It seems as if the algae need the bacteria for the production of sugars and hydrocarbons. If we had more insight in the DNA, we would have a greater insight into how this algae variety works.”
The scientists have also found an efficient method for extracting useful substances from the algae without killing it via a process called ‘milking’. Sijtsma: “We want to use algae in the same way fruit farmers use apple trees to ensure that we don’t have to start cultivation from scratch every time. Although we are still optimising this method, the lab results are encouraging.”
New production chains
Another promising aspect is the progress made in the EU programme FUEL4ME. Coordinated by Wageningen University & Research, this programme uses algae as a raw material for bio-fuels and by-products. According to project leader Dorinde Kleinegris FUEL4ME is firstly focused on developing new production chains: “Algae are unique organisms that can produce high-quality omega fatty acids, among other substances. These need to find their way to the food market. Secondly, lower quality fats can potentially be used as a raw material for bio-fuels. In addition, we are investigating whether we can ferment the remaining biomass into hydrogen, which could also be used in fuels.”
Growing and producing fats
Another element of the programme is aimed at improving the biomass itself. Kleinegris: “Most algae stop growing when they produce fats, which means the production process is not very efficient. You want them to grow and produce fats as well. We have developed a strategy for the green algae Nannochloropsis which produces large amounts of fat and continues to grow. This is an important step towards a more robust production system.”
Opportunities in niche markets
Both SPLASH and FUEL4ME illustrate that it is unrealistic to expect algae to become a bulk material for plastics and bio-fuels any time soon. But there are plenty of opportunities in niche markets. Sijtsma and Kleinegris believe that follow-up research should initially focus on reducing the cost price. Strain improvement is required to enable the growth of more algae per square metre. The next trick is to design the biorefinery process in such a way that individual fractions have the highest possible value. These fractions should then be linked to high-quality end products. Items that are currently successful on the market include food products with omega fatty acids or algae oil, and cosmetics with colour pigments.
A total of 20 international companies and knowledge institutes are participating in SPLASH, which runs until February 2017. FUEL4ME involves a consortium of 11 parties and will be concluded at the end of 2016.