10. April 2014
One of Earth’s oldest organisms is getting more and more attention. Small but mighty, algae already play a key role in a variety of industries, including food, feed, nutraceuticals, personal care, and cosmetics. But of the more than 100,000 species of algae that exist on the planet, only a dozen have been utilized for commercial applications. As we discover new species and increase our understanding of the valuable materials that these organisms offer, demand for algae-based products will continue to surge.
However, the most pressing bottleneck is commercial-scale supply and the appropriate production technology to enable it. Although select algae species like Chlorella and Spirulina have been grown commercially for decades, the low-tech production methods normally employed are not viable for many other strains, and do not deliver the product quality necessary for many of the markets that are demanding algae-based products. Right now, there is an acute need for algae production technology that enables truly commercial production to bring these innovative products to market at scale.
At Heliae, this is our mission. We are a technology-focused production company that produces novel algae-based products for a range of markets around the world. Our technology platform differentiates us both on cost and flexibility, and we are able to work with a diverse set of algae strains to deliver a new generation of algae-based products to our industry partners.
We’ve spent years honing our technology and have worked with technical partners from a range of industries to help us deliver a world-class technology platform that we are starting to roll out globally. Our partnership and ongoing collaboration with SCHOTT has focused on a critical stage in our production process: seed production.
In algae production, a successful algae crop begins with a high-quality seed, or inoculum. To ensure the production of a clean and reliable inoculum to support a commercial production facility, Heliae collaborated with SCHOTT to develop the HelixTM series of glass tubular photobioreactors (PBRs).
The Helix PBR is a substantial upgrade as compared to traditional PBR designs. It provides top-quality components and a suite of flexible controls, including unique lighting options for optimal light intensity and cadence and multiple mode settings for increased operator control. But the PBR’s greatest advancement is its state-of-the-art control system that allows for unprecedented technician management of algae cultures. In sum, this PBR’s feedback and fine-tuned controls open the door to higher yields and in turn, greater opportunities for algae use across industries.
Innovative glass tubing
Leveraging SCHOTT’s core strength in glass innovation, the partners investigated the effect of the tubing system and materials on the performance of the PBR. While many PBRs rely on plastic tubes to grow algae, these systems are plagued with plastic degradation, which disrupts light paths and hinders photosynthesis. Glass tubes, while more expensive, are easy to clean, durable, and resistant to bio-fouling, and therefore deliver a high-quality product.
With this goal in mind, SCHOTT’s novel glass tubing fit the project. SCHOTT created CONTURAX® oval glass tubes, which offer a larger surface area for better light utilization and penetration.
Recently, SCHOTT and Heliae partnered with Arizona State University to demonstrate the efficacy and performance of the Helix reactor. Funded by SCHOTT, Heliae installed the Helix PBR with SCHOTT CONTURAX® tubing at ASU’s Department of Energy (DOE)-funded algae testbed facility. Throughout the next several years, ASU research staff will conduct algae production research in an effort to validate the effects of the system on algae yield and learn more about the economics of algae production. The Helix will also incorporate new glass innovations from SCHOTT to continue to optimize the technology.
In order for the algae industry to grow, firms must deliver commercial technology to the market. The technical ability to produce high-quality algae at scale will enable market adoption and penetration of algae-based products — only then will this industry truly take off. Interdisciplinary collaborations like the partnership between Heliae and SCHOTT are key to the development of world-class technology. This partnership has already delivered results and will continue to benefit the algae industry for the long term.
This guest post was written by Nick Donowitz, Director of Corporate Development for Heliae. Donowitz has more than a decade of experience in clean technology, business development, and strategy.