Primitive plants that are full of energy, algae and seaweed have been dubbed the green gold for some time. While production costs remain too high to grow them as bulk raw material, there are already plenty of opportunities in niche markets. A new decision model helps algae growers make the right choices.
“The expectations for microalgae and seaweed have become somewhat more moderate in recent years,” says Chris de Visser. As a business developer at Wageningen UR, De Visser is part of EnAlgae, a major strategic research project by seven northern European countries, in which Wageningen UR is investigating the potential of algae as biofuel together with 18 partners. The result has been various publications and a calculation tool for algae growers. “For a long time a large-scale cultivation for the production of biofuels seemed within reach,” De Visser states. “The current conclusion, however, is that this is not realistic.”
High production costs
According to De Visser, the problem is the high production costs. “Yields per hectare are still too low. A few years ago we were expecting to be able to produce hundreds of tonnes per hectare per year but now we’re lucky if a hectare produces 15 tonnes of dry matter. The problem is that the production process is technologically complex and lots of innovation is needed to scale up production.”
Additive for food and animal feed
Nonetheless, according to De Visser, there are ample opportunities for smaller applications. Algae contain lots of omega 3 fatty acids and valuable ingredients such as astaxanthin. These substances are known for their health benefits and are therefore in demand as additives for food and animal feed products. In these niches, algae are already a sought-after commodity because manufacturers can easily recoup the high production costs.
Recovering phosphate from wastewater
There are other opportunities for algae in the short term on a completely different level, says De Visser. “Algae are very suitable for cleaning wastewater from the agro-food industry. Every year in the Netherlands alone, 20 million kilograms of phosphate is lost via the burnt sewage sludge in waste and stones, leaving the food chain. At the same time, there is an impending worldwide shortage of this substance. Algae extract the phosphate from wastewater, allowing it to be recovered.”
De Visser expects it to be another 10 to 15 years before algae will be suitable as bulk material for the biobased economy. “To continue developing we will first need gradual growth in niche markets. In this context, Wageningen UR is working hard with partners on developing new technologies to further improve the cultivation of algae.”
Decision models for entrepreneurs
As part of the EnAlgae project, Wageningen UR has carried out research into the production cost of various algae cultivation systems. “We looked at ponds, flat plate reactors and tubular reactors. We integrated the result within several online decision models. These decision support tools will allow businesses to calculate the cost of algae production and understand which decisions can be used to influence it.”
For information on the decision support tools, contact Chris de Visser