A newly designed system for the cultivation of algae has highlighted the commercial potential for a range of algae-derived products; above all, production of omega-3 fatty acids.
The Austrian-based biotech company Ecoduna is poised to bring industrial-scale algae production to the mainstream with the development of its PHOBIOR project. Named for the photo-bioreactor technology that it employs, the project aims to demonstrate the commercial viability of microalgae cultivation for the production of omega-3 fatty acids. The project is financed through the EU Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme.
Omega-3s have long been understood as vital to human health and nutrition, particularly for developing brains. Increasing public awareness of these benefits over the past several years has seen the market for omega-3 nutrition products grow substantially; in Europe, it is expected to reach Euro1.16 billion by 2014. Meeting this demand with an ecologically sound supply of the compounds is therefore important.
The PHOBIOR bioreactor, like most photo-bioreactors used to grow algae, is a closed system. As such, its efficiency and yield depends on how well each variable within the unit is controlled. Ecoduna's system addresses this challenge with several innovations.
The first is a rotating `hanging garden' design which tracks the movement of the sun for optimal control of light exposure. This design helps avoid the problem of `light inhibition' afflicting other photo-bioreactors, where excessive amounts of light prohibit efficient algae growth.
To counter this effect, the algae-containing tubes are folded and layered in such a way as to allow neighbouring panels to share and absorb excessive light. This dramatically increases the active area - trophogenic zone - in which the algae can grow. By insuring maximum photo-active volume within the unit, Ecoduna is saving both space and energy.
Another advantage of the new system is that it uses CO2 to carry out two essential functions at once: the movement and mixing of algae through the system and the delivery of nourishment to algal cells. The company claims this reduces energy consumption by up to 80% compared with other methods.
A further innovation is the reduction of joints and seals in the unit where uninvited bacteria and fungi can attach and grow. Fewer infection zones mean that fewer hazardous pest control additives are needed to grow the algae.
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 - through water treatment or carbon capture and storage for example. As raw materials, algae have uses in the food and energy sectors, pharmaceutical industry, and the bio-plastic and bio-fuel trade.
Ecoduna predicts that the success of the PHOBIOR unit - which will be the second largest photo-bioreactor plant in the world - will spur the construction and sale of hundreds of production units in coming years.