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EECHYMA Report Summary

Project ID: 698947

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EECHYMA (Eco-efficient high-yield production of antioxidant compounds from microalgae)

Reporting period: 2015-10-01 to 2016-03-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

The project EECHYMA (ECo-Efficient High-Yield production of antioxidant compounds from MicroAlgae) aims at designing an enhanced concept of autotrophic microalgae farm, with a particular emphasys on the improvement of antioxydant yield.
For 15 years, there have been a lot of promises in the field of microalgae: exceptional yields in high-quality proteins and lipids, a miracle solution to world hunger through cultivation in non-arable land or sea, affordable biofuels etc. Several middle-scale productions are now in place, mainly using fermentation of sugar, to produce algal oil or protein, but other achievements lie far beyond expectations.
Several issues have to be resolved in order to penetrate mass production and commercialisation of algal antioxidants via the food industry, such as:
- Lack of a standardised production all over the year
- Variable antioxidant content and poor extraction yields
- True productivity lower than theoretical values (in tons/area.year)
- Questionable sustainability of the production: high level of energy consumption for culturing and processing algae (mixing, harvesting, and extraction), use of synthetic fertilisers.
For example, the carotenoid astaxanthine is produced in Europe by a technology using massive quantities of electrical light, an ecological nonsense. In another example, producers of the microalga spirulina see the composition of their product varying all over the year because the light intensity fluctuates from summer to winter; therefore they have a difficulty to propose a standard production to industrials. All these issues are not solved today in the emerging microalgae sector as it was pinpointed by Enzing et al. (2014) in the Joint Research Center policy report entitled “Microalgae-based products for the food and feed sector: an outlook for Europe”. The report clearly states that cost reduction and technological innovation are the key challenges to the development of a microalgae industry in the EU.
Algonesia Technologies is proposing a disruptive technology that is addressing the issues listed above, especially a way to produce microalgae with an optimized and stable antioxidant concentration: this technology combines an innovative design and a fine control of the production, adjusting the production parameters every minute.
The aim of the proposal is to build a demonstrator photobioreactor (the facility required for the production of microalgae) in south of France and to fully characterize its performances (quality of microalgae produced, consumption of energy and water, integration in the context of a circular economy).
Also included in the feasibility study is a commercial campaign towards potential industrial customers to present our future production and get first elements on price, quality and quantity. The demand for organic-grown products has to be evaluated.
The results will be used to finalise a business plan by adjusting capital costs as well as operational costs and to validate the quality of microalgae composition requested by industrials.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

To verify the results we had previously obtained in simulation, we have undertaken the building of a technological demonstrator of a new photobioreactor at a 1:10 scale.
Belonging to the family of thin-layer photobioreactors, this demonstrator exhibits a 10m x 1m surface area exposed to the solar radiation and is installed in Arles, near Marseille in the south of France. Built in aluminium for rigidity and glass for transparency, it allows the water to flow freely on a food-grade liner protected from airborne particles such as pollutants and pollen.
In spite of multiple delays from our contractor, we have performed an experimental program to check the hydraulic behaviour of the demonstrator against calculated values.
Growth tests were performed with Arthrospira platensis (spirulina), a robust cyanobacterium able to grow even in late fall or early spring, to assess the ability of the photobioreactor to grow microalgae in optimal light conditions. The created biomass was then harvested and the content in phycocyanin, the main antioxidant pigment in spirulina, was determined by spectroscopic analysis. To this end, an innovative extraction protocol, easy to run in a small laboratory, was developed to determine precisely the phycocyanin content.
Market readiness was assessed by analysis of market studies on carotenoids and contacts with potential clients, as well as review of concurrent investments in new production capacities. The market of antioxidants from spirulina (phycocyanin) was also reviewed and the cost to market a phycocyanin-based product were given a first assessment.
With the help of the coaching program supported by the H2020-SME program, the business model was challenged and improved to maximise the odds of success.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

Hydraulic behaviour was satisfactory and showed good agreement with simulations. Flow homogeneity is highly dependent on surface horizontality which reveals to accept a very low construction tolerance.
Spirulina, previously grown in the laboratory, was successfully transferred in the demonstrator and exhibits a satisfactory growth during 2 weeks.
To determine the phycocyanin content in the cyanobacteria (which is a high-value molecule), we happened to develop a specific method to extract the phycocyanin from the biomass without the steps conventionally used (drying, freezing-thawing or ball milling). Through this one-step process, we could recover in 24h up to 12% of the dry biomass as valuable phycocyanin (16% in 48h); considering that in the scientific literature, the phycocyanin extraction ratio is limited to 50%, this could lead to phycocyanin content in the biomass approaching 30% of the dry mass, an exceptional result. On the basis of these findings, we plan to soon file a patent application on this reactor technology.
Eventually we filed a patent application on this straightforward extraction method that could be used to produce at low cost a phycocyanin-rich beverage from freshly harvested spirulina. Such a beverage is interesting from a nutritional point of view, being highly rich in antioxidant (and probably vitamins, although we haven’t measured them yet), fat- and sugar-free and exhibiting a vivid blue colour. We have entered into contact with potential partners to distribute this alternative to Algama’s Springwave®.
This lucky finding may convert into additional revenues to the company but our business model has been built on the hypothesis of the construction and exploitation of a microalgae farm in Europe running with our photobioreactor technology and the sale of microalgal high-value compounds such as carotenoids, among which astaxanthine is our main target. The market studies we have examined have confirmed that this market is growing on all continents, with the submarket of microalgal astaxanthine “sky-rocketing” for human health applications. The global market of astaxanthine is expected to reach $1.1 billion in 2020 (from $450M in 2014).

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