3. December 2014
The beginning of the algae industry was akin to the gold rush: Startups flooded the market hoping to quickly strike it rich. But the floodwaters have receded, washing away all but the strongest companies, which continue to innovate and adapt in order to tap the vast potential of algae across industries.
Many early algae producers aimed to create the next superfuel, and some continue on that path — experts in the industry expect algae biofuels to be competitive with fossil fuels by 2020. But more manufacturers are capitalizing on algae’s potential beyond fuel, finding ways to use algae in the food industry, in aqua-farming production, as fertilizer, and even as a potential waste-water cleaner.
As the keynote speaker of this year’s Algae Biomass Summit put it, for a vast range of applications, “there’s an algae for that.” The shift from biofuels to other uses of algae — especially food and feed — was a prime topic of conversation at the conference, where policy and industry leaders discussed the current trends in the algae market and what’s in store for the future.
This new focus on broader — and more profitable — uses for algae has shifted industry attention away from large open ponds, a widespread method of algae production that has presented manufacturers with a number of challenges, including maintaining purity and pH levels.
Closed system photobioreactors (PBRs) are now replacing ponds as advances boost harvest yields and offer a number of advantages over the systems of the past, as Paul Woods from Alganol pointed out when he explained on the first day of the summit that a vertical closed system is superior to a horizontal system.
Tubular glass PBR systems are closed to harmful external factors, so they’re secure against bio-contamination and resistant to ultraviolet light, chemicals, scratches, and corrosion. This also ensures long-term durability, allowing the glass tubes to last more than 50 years and decreasing the total cost of ownership. Plus, since the tubing is made of food- and pharmaceutical-grade glass, it’s food safe. But undoubtedly, the most important benefit of closed glass PBR systems is that they’re highly productive, yielding the highest biomass output per production space.
As we saw at the Algae Biomass Summit and in the industry at large, these systems continue to improve. One driver is the many new approaches sprouting from technology partnerships forged to improve the efficiency, yield, and cost-effectiveness of algae production.
How algae production partnerships breed success
Industrial algae production facilities around the world are implementing manufacturing systems that are highly reliable and repeatable, working toward perfecting efficiency in their specialized systems. One way is using thin-walled tubing for PBRs. In cooperation with Raz Rashelbach from the Israeli company Algatechnologies, I presented results from a year-long study on this new method at the Algae Biomass Summit.
Algatechnologies installed SCHOTT’s DURAN glass tubing in select, closed PBR systems at its production facility to determine how this ultra-strong glass with thinner walls affected algae growth. The large-scale experiment, with a total volume of more than 30,000 liters, was positive, with yield of Astaxanthin increasing by almost 10 percent thanks to increased light penetration and larger tube volumes.
These partnerships between algae production companies and materials manufacturers extend into academia, as well. At Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus, SCHOTT and Arizona-based Heliae collaborated on a tubular glass PBR to study the effect of another glass tubing innovation on algae yields and the economics of algae production: SCHOTT’s CONTURAX oval glass tubing, which optimizes light penetration and utilization. While testing is ongoing, the preliminary results of an indoor reactor at the Heliae facilities in Gilbert, Arizona, show that algae growth rate as well as algae maximum concentration increased significantly. Detailed data for this study, and some further test runs regarding the dry biomass production per reactor will be published soon.
The future of algae growth
The successes of these tests reveal that innovation, collaboration, and customization between the algae industry and specialized manufacturers can generate influential changes and breakthroughs. Better performance means increased yields and higher production, which fosters growth in both algae and business. When algae producers have better, more reliable yields and concentrations, they’re able to experiment with new uses, and algae-based products continue to become more competitive in the market.