Bright pink-orange microalgae found in salt lakes and coastal waters could become a renewable source of food, plastics, health products and fuel as a result of new research announced this week.
The University of Greenwich is leading a €10m international project to develop the microalga Dunaliella as a sustainable raw material that captures CO2 and can grow in some of the world’s harshest environments.
The project will build a biorefinery called the ‘D-Factory’ which is going to turn every part of the alga into something useful.
Algae are known for their ability to convert CO2 and sunlight into chemical energy five times faster than crops grown in soil. This particular alga is able to produce up to 80 per cent of its mass as fuel but is currently too expensive to cultivate for fuel alone.
However it also produces a range of compounds of great interest in pharmaceutical, cosmetic, nutraceutical and other applications – and this may provide the solution.
Project leader Professor Pat Harvey, from the university’s Faculty of Engineering & Science, explains: “The race is on to develop a broader spectrum of compounds from algae, which can be turned into high-value products including food and medicines.
“If we can make algae biorefineries commercially viable, we will have developed a new industry founded on an environmentally-kind raw material which is also sustainable. The potential is huge.
“By 2020 these algae may also provide us with sustainable fuel. The science is there but at the moment the costs don’t add up.”
The research brings together 13 research institutions and businesses from eight countries, including world-leading experts in the biochemistry of Dunaliella, in large-scale cultivation of microalgae, in novel harvesting technologies and in bioprocessing development.
Together they aim to set a world benchmark for a biorefinery based on microalgae. Plans include the largest commercial cultivation of the single-cell organisms, in water raceways, lakes and photobioreactors.
The project hopes to demonstrate the business case for global investment in algae biorefineries, and in large-scale production of microalgae, within three years in order to raise investment for the first prototype D-Factory in Europe.
The Dunaliella alga has been chosen because it produces a wide range of compounds, appropriate for the ‘biorefinery’ concept which aims to use every element of a biomass. It can cope with extreme conditions, from salt caves in the Antarctic, to salt pans in the tropics.
The high salinity and light intensity turns the microalgae orange by producing protective carotenoids. The pink-orange of many salt lakes containing Dunaliella is intensified by the presence of archaea, fellow single-celled organisms.
[Courtesy: University of Greenwich]