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Researchers develop novel technology for energy efficient algae production

Researchers at Syracuse University in the US have developed a novel technology for energy efficient cultivation and harvesting of microalgae. The production system can achieve up to a ten-fold gain in productivity compared to conventional systems.

Algae in tubes (photo courtesy Syracuse University).

Algae in tubes (photo courtesy Syracuse University).

Scientists have long known of the potential of microalgae to aid in the production of biofuels and other valuable chemicals. However, the difficulty and significant cost of growing microalgae have in some ways stalled further development of this promising technology. Researchers at Syracuse University (SU), New York, US have developed a novel technology for energy efficient cultivation and harvesting of microalgae.

Addressing bottlenecks

Bendy Estime, a biomedical and chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate at SU, has devoted his research to this area, and developed a new technology for energy efficient cultivation and harvesting of microalgae.

The results of Estime’s research have been published as an article, “Cultivation and energy efficient harvesting of microalgae using thermoreversible sol-gel transition“, in Scientific Reports. In addition, Estime and his research advisors, Distinguished Professor Radhakrishna Sureshkumar, Chair of the Department of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering, and Professor Dachena Ren have secured a provisional patent for the technology.

According to Professor Sureshkumar, the study is an attempt to address three ‘bottlenecks’ in microalgae cultivation that hamper productivity and increase costs.

– When you grow algae in suspension, they tend to stick to the walls of a container, making the container opaque. This makes it more difficult for required light to get through to the algae. The second issue is that there has to be consistent stirring of the container to ensure that light does reach all layers of the algae. A third issue is the difficulty of separating algae from the broth, which requires time and energy, and is therefore costly, Sureshkumar explained.

Novel growth medium

– My goal was to improve the growth of microalgae, recounted Estime, who first studied biofuels as an engineering student in his native Haiti.

Estime developed a new medium to culture and harvest microalgae. The medium, Tris-Acetate-Phosphate-Pluronic (TAPP), can transition from solution to a gel through relatively small variations in temperature. Microalgae are seeded in the medium at 15 oC. When the temperature is increased by seven degrees, the medium becomes gelatinous.

In this new medium, microalgae grow in clusters that are up to 10 times larger than those grown in the traditional medium. Once they are grown, the temperature is decreased, and the medium is returned to a solution. The algae are separated out through gravity, and can then be harvested.

– The industrial applications of this system are appealing. This system would harvest microalgae 10 times faster than traditional systems and in an energy- efficient fashion, Estime pointed out.

The medium prevents algae from growing on the sides of a container, letting light penetrate to each level of algae improving productivity while also eliminating the need for constant stirring, which reduces energy consumption. When the medium is converted back to a solution, algae can be more easily separated out and removed from the container.

– This study presents a novel method to harvest algae and other cells with low cost, which has potential applications in multiple fields. It makes it more realistic for researchers to pursue microalgae as a solution, commented Professor Ren.

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