Perspectives: End Point

Scientists Shine Spotlight on Algae and Seaweed

Research aims to address challenges of developing sustainable biomass production

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

Algae have long been touted as a next-generation resource for manufacturing a whole range of essential products. However, the challenge is to grow and process them sustainably.

In one of the latest attempts to achieve this, the University of Greenwich, London, U.K., is leading a €10-million ($13.6-million) international project to develop the microalga Dunaliella as a sustainable raw material.

Dunaliella has been chosen because it produces a wide range of compounds appropriate for the project's biorefinery concept that 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 turn the microalgae orange by producing protective carotenoids, for which the alga already is used.

Overall, algae are known for their ability to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into chemical energy five times faster than crops grown in soil. Dunaliella can produce up to 80% of its mass as fuel. Currently, cultivating the alga for fuel alone is too expensive, but it has the important added advantage of producing a range of compounds of great interest for pharmaceutical, cosmetic, nutraceutical and other applications.

 "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," explains Patricia J. Harvey, who is project leader, professor of biochemistry and head of bioenergy research at Greenwich.

At the heart of the project's strategy is developing a biorefiney, called the "D-Factory," designed to turn every part of the alga into useful products. "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," notes Harvey.

The project brings together 13 research institutions and businesses from eight countries, including experts in the biochemistry of Dunaliella, large-scale cultivation of microalgae, novel harvesting technologies and 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 large-scale production of microalgae. The group hopes to raise investment for the first prototype D-Factory in Europe within three years.

Based on prospects for the D-Factory, drug discovery company IOTA Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge, U.K., has chosen Greenwich as its academic partner to research the potential of the microalga Dunaliella as a route to new medicines.

"Over half of all human medicines originate from natural products," says Dr. David Bailey, CEO of IOTA Pharmaceuticals. "We are focusing on the proteins catalyzing these chemical transformations, using next-generation DNA sequencing approaches to identify, design and develop new processes for natural product synthesis."

Greenwich also is a key player in efforts to develop seaweed as a biofuel. The university is part of a 12-strong consortium of U.K. universities and companies that aims to develop manufacturing processes that can overcome two major challenges posed by seaweed: removing its high water content, and preserving it for year-round use.

Ensilage — a method traditionally used by farmers to turn grass into hay for winter animal feed — has potential to stop the seaweed from rotting. This research, backed by £1.6 million ($2.7 million) from the U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, also will explore the conversion of wet seaweed to gas, which can in turn be converted to liquid fuel.

Like Dunaliella, seaweed also is a microalga and capable of turning into chemical energy three times more efficiently than land plants.
    
"Current biofuels may not be sustainable," says Dr. John Milledge, research fellow in the school of science at Greenwich and an expert in the commercialization of algae. "First-generation fuels such as bioethanol from sugarcane and corn, or biodiesel from rapeseed and palm oil, are in direct competition with food for arable land and water. They have an adverse effect on food prices and supply. Salt-water algae are therefore a very attractive proposition as an alternative biofuel if we can overcome the challenges."

Milledge is working closely with Harvey to determine whether U.K.'s coasts can sustain large-scale biofuel production.


ottewell.jpgSeán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net

More from this perspective...

Title

Chemical Processes Make A Fashion Statement

Chemical technology developments add new twists to fashion trends.

10/07/2010

Australian Dairy Industry Turns to Chemical Engineers

Researchers get funding to improve energy-intensive processes.

11/10/2010

EU Carbon Trading Gets Hacked

Cyber criminals view emission allowances as a gold mine.

02/08/2011

EU Vote Sparks Competitive Concerns

New emission rules put coal-fired installations at a considerable disadvantage.

01/18/2011

U.K. Wants More Chemical Engineers

Proposed legislation eases immigration of non-European Union technical specialists.

03/24/2011

Bio-chem Industry Gets Social

Industry report shows companies that adapt to social networking are more successful

04/15/2011

Blending Technology Accelerates

External electrical fields promise to speed separation process a thousand-fold.

08/29/2011

Carbon Capture Method Shows Promise

A packed-bed combustion process may be the answer to cost-effective CO2 capture.

07/27/2011

Chemical Engineers Make Explosive Progress

TNT gets a safer replacement and elastomeric material provides blast protection.

12/14/2010

Drying Whets Lignite's Prospects

Novel process enables more efficient combustion and lower emissions.

09/13/2011

Energy Policies Threaten U.K. Chemical Industry

Government plans call for a 60% reduction in emissions by 2030.

06/21/2011

U.K. Carbon Capture Project Gets Big Boost

Major government funding could spur construction of unit at coal-fired power plant

05/14/2014

Gulf Faces Lasting Impact From Spill

Study points to serious long-term effects on fish from Deepwater Horizon disaster.

10/11/2011

Partnerships Aim To Improve Oil Refining

Anglo-Russian effort is latest cooperative venture.

11/10/2011

Spinning Disk Reactor Reveals Potential

Smaller reactor could increase the safety of chemical production processes

05/13/2011

Report Spotlights Low-Dose Effects of EDCs

Debate on the impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals could prompt more testing.

04/19/2012

Scotland Vies for Oil and Gas Rights

Independence could affect the future of North Sea oil and gas assets.

02/20/2012

U.K. Eyes Benefits of Carbon Capture -- Again

New program hopes to revive carbon capture and storage competition.

05/16/2012

U.K. Launches Global Engineering Award

Prize hopes to boost recognition of engineering advancements.

12/14/2011

Sweden Targets Biofuel Developments

Engineers focus on obtaining synthesis gas from forest waste materials.

06/18/2012