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Start-up developing low cost process to lyse algae

US start-up Gen3Bio Inc., a Purdue Foundry-affiliated company, is developing a unique process that its says could more effectively and affordably transform microalgae into biobased chemicals to maximize the value of feedstock and reduce waste. The company is scaling up and commercializing an effective, efficient and low-cost algae extraction method to lyse open the algae cells by using a mix of commercially available enzymes.

Start-up company Gen3Bio is developing a unique process that could more effectively and affordably extract the different chemical components in order to convert them into bio-based chemical, biofuels, and bioplastics (photo courtesy Gen3Bio).

Through his Gen3Bio, founder Kevin Okamoto is scaling up and commercializing an effective, efficient and low-cost algae extraction method to lyse open the algae cells by using a mix of commercially available enzymes with a technology developed at the University of Toledo.

There’s been a huge movement toward greener, renewable products for the sake of the environment and that includes biofuels and biochemicals. Conventional biofuels are derived from sugars of crops, which can take a considerable amount of land and water to produce. Algae has a low carbon footprint, is renewable and can be accessed in large quantities, so overall it is very environmentally friendly. It’s a great alternative to meet the expected demand for bio-based products in the future, said Okamoto.

Lysing open the cells releases and separates the fats, sugars, and proteins within the cells. The different chemical components can be sold or further converted into biobased chemicals, biofuels, and bioplastics.

Companies use algae for things such as wastewater treatment or flue gas remediation. Additionally, there are algae producers and harvesters who clean up fish farms or natural waters. Usually, after the algae have been used for its initial purpose, it’s disposed of in landfills or converted into animal feed supplements or field nutrition supplements. While the last two are great uses, companies do not receive much money from these options. It’s more profitable to convert the byproduct algae to high-value biobased chemicals, he said.

Cost-effective process

According to Okamoto, the most common current processes to extract biochemicals from algae often degrade a large portion of the cell contents and are energy intensive.

The most common processes used today target the fats in the microalgae, which can then be used in biodiesel. However, these processes break down the sugars and proteins which can be valuable and utilized to produce biobased chemicals. Petroleum-based diesel sells wholesale for about 15 cents a pound right now, so the companies producing only biodiesel have difficulty competing profitably because of this low cost. They lose money doing that, he said.

Gen3Bio’s process could allow companies to earn a profit on the sugars and proteins from the cells being sold to specialty chemical companies, with sales of biodiesel adding to revenue. The company is a startup receiving assistance from the Purdue Foundry, an entrepreneurial accelerator located in Discovery Park’s Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship, and is located in the Purdue Research Park of West Lafayette.

However, it is seeking funding to further develop the technology. Once the company finalizes the process, it plans to license the technology to its end users.

We would offer a design and installation package for the equipment as well as an ongoing support package to licensees. Since most of the companies interested in this technology would be small, we would also distribute or consign byproduct bio-based chemicals upon request. This type of support would allow us to combine the resulting chemicals from these smaller facilities to get a larger, more attractive volume to the market, Okamoto said.

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