Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Tapping into the commercial potential of microscopic algae.

Microalgae are a promising feedstock for the sustainable production of food, feed and non-food products. An EU initiative contributed to successful scale-up by reducing production costs and increasing value to enhance the economic output.
Tapping into the commercial potential of microscopic algae.
The high cost of available biomass and the lack of appropriate biorefinery technology are two major barriers to fully exploiting algae. Reducing the cost of biomass production, and building effective biorefinery technology and novel products are all key to accelerating the development and scale-up of the algal sector.

The EU-funded MIRACLES set out to overcome these hurdles “via innovation and technology development in algae production and processing, and the development of new products,” says project coordinator Dr Hans Reith.

Microalgae: a natural resource with huge potential

The consortium successfully developed and demonstrated technological innovations to improve the cost-effectiveness of algae production, harvesting and processing. It formulated profit-making multiproduct biorefinery concepts, and introduced a range of new, algae-based specialties for food, aquaculture and non-food applications.

Project partners also developed technologies for concentrating CO2 from the air for algal growth, optimisation of target products in algal biomass and cost reductions in cultivation and harvesting. Through bioprospecting in extreme locations, they selected new, robust industrial strains.

The work was supported by a comprehensive assessment of market opportunities, techno-economic evaluation, development of integral biorefinery designs and scenarios, and business plans aimed at full valorisation of the algal biomass. Specifically, the researchers integrated the results into eight biorefinery scenarios, from biomass production to marketable products incorporating technologies and data developed during the project. It then evaluated the scenarios based on their costs and profitability.

Findings show that a 10 000 tonne multiproduct microalgae biorefinery has commercial potential. In contrast, single product biorefineries of similar sizes are far from profitable. Algae production is a major cost factor, contributing 60 % - 85 % of the total costs, depending on the scenario.

Making microalgae marketable

Researchers assessed the environmental performance of the multiproduct biorefinery concepts. A life cycle analysis quantified major environmental impacts and identified energy use as the major hotspot in microalgae cultivation and refining. To enhance future technology, emphasis should be placed on energy-saving strategies, cost reduction and productivity optimisation in cultivation and processing.

The project team carried out an analysis to better understand the societal benefits of algae cultivation and use, as well as a survey of consumer attitudes towards and expectations of algae products. Overall, consumers are open-minded about and interested in algae products. Concerns are mainly related to potential off-taste, off-smell and purity (toxins, contaminants). Actions such as a quality control policy and appropriate communication need to be taken to reassure consumers that their concerns are well addressed.

MIRACLES achieved a range of exploitable results, including technologies, new product applications and business models supported by a marketing and business plan. “The exploitable results help to widen the gap between production costs and market value of algae specialties,” says Dr Reith. “This shows the commercial feasibility and potential profitability of a microalgae venture.” He explains that further R&D is required to validate and demonstrate the developed technologies and products at industrial scale. Patents are pending, and the creation of new commercial ventures and follow-up projects are being considered.

By combining cost reduction and value creation, MIRACLES will contribute to the scale-up and growth of the algae sector within the bioeconomy, strengthen the competitiveness of the European marine biotechnology industry and make it more attractive to investments. “The EU’s Blue Growth strategy also will benefit from the project’s development of sustainable jobs and growth in microalgae biotechnology and the aquaculture sector,” concludes Dr Reith.

Keywords

MIRACLES, microalgae, biomass, biorefinery, bioprespecting
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