While the grouped microalgae population accounts for less than 1% of the earths total biomass, microalgae is being increasingly understood as the biological pump that not only drives, balances and maintains global ecosystems but could potentially be used in wide-scale raw material production.
Microalgae could be the renewable resource the market has been anticipating as an effective, sustainable, unlimited and almost entirely untapped resource for bio-based processes and products.
Characterised as a dense source of energy and rich in nutrients, this natural product remains an undiminished resource ready for exploitation by forward-thinking commerical chains looking for improved sustainability in their products.
So what is the market potential of microalgae?
Microalgae, or microphytes as they are also known, are microscopic algae typically found in freshwater and marine ecosystems living in both the water column and sediment. Structurally, they are unicellular species which exist individually, or in chains or groups. They also underpin a wealth of processes that sustain the our natural world.
The sheer number of products that can be produced from algae is virtually unlimited, due in part to the large variety of species (possibly in the millions) whose composition can be influenced by changing the cultivation conditions. With only a few commercial algae-based products available at present this resource is almost entirely untapped making it a future-proof opportunity set to explode across bio-based markets in the coming years.
Microalgae are increasingly being recognised as a promising source of biodiesel and chemical building blocks, which can be used in a host of products from bio-based paints and plastics to biofuels and even the reversal of the global waste crisis.
Microalgae cultivation and the bioeconomy
The importance of microalgae in sustainability networks has been underlined in Wageningen UR’s report ‘Microalgae: The Green Gold of The Future’. The research paper outlines the potential of the substance to solve global unsustainable processes and boost the bioeconomy:
“The cultivation of microalgae can make an important contribution to the transition to a more sustainable society or biobased economy… Algae are not only promising as waste converters and recyclers. The algal cell contains many useful substances and microalgae are cultivated increasingly for the production of valuable raw materials… Applications of these materials are numerous, ranging from biodiesel and bioplastics to colorants and hamburgers.”
The capacity for commercial cultivation of microalgae is currently relatively limited and innefficient as researchers push ahead with the testing of large-scale, cost-effective production.
For this reason, Wageningen UR @, in collaboration with indsutrial partners, is presently investigating the optimisation of algae production in outdoor systems on-site at their tailor-made facility, the AlgaePARC @ (Algae Production and Research Centre, seen pictured left).
Financed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, the program is examining these ‘BioSolar Cells’ with 18 collaborative partners to enhance the production of algae to be competitive at the bulk product market with a strong economic and technological boost to existing processes (The full list of partners can be found here). In this way, the mass-scale production of algae can be honed and made cost-effective to suit global business needs and encourage the switch to bio-based alternatives.
Wageningen UR’s work with AlgaePARC will play a key role in determining the most efficient way to cultivate microalgae for widespread use. By cross-testing cultivation systems and comparing the results, bright futures can be expected from the team in its bid to create the optimal reactor design for application on a commercial scale.
As research into algae is rapidly expanding, worldwide bioeconomies are respsonding to its potential as a sustainable and viable alternative to traditional, non-renewable resources such as oil and ethanol which are both damaging to the environment and increasingly unstable as resource.
As a result, companies and governments are investing notable sums into algae research programmes from large-scale projects in the field of genetic modification of microalgae in the United States, algae bioinformatic research in China and an array of developing demonstration systems across Europe.
These applications for algae in bio-based products can also be found in our previous articles; & also Algae discovery offers commercialization path for cosmetics
The wacky world of algae in design
Bio-Based World News has also been looking at the use of algae as a material for design and architecture. While a range of microorganisms have been harnessed across waste management, alcoholic beverage production, agriculture, medicine, and more recently biofuels – It is microalgae, however, that is currently exciting designers with it’s unique phyiscal structure and versatilty for use in products.
One of the most interesting modern uses for microalgae is it’s use in architecture, design and home furnishings. To highlight and promote the potential of microalgae as a bio-based product material, architect Jacob Douenias @ and industrial designer Ethan Frier @have created a recent installation simply titled living things.
In their installation, the designers set out to highlight the brilliance of microalgae-based furniture. In their project, a living room, dining room and kitchen space, each adopts a different kind of bioreactor functioning distinctively to show off the merits of microalgae. Their unqiue take on home-furnishings set out to underline the symbiotic reliationship between humans and microorganisms expressed across these three different stations.
The designers emphasise the need to recognise the durability of microalgae as a bio-based material in practical applications;
“The absence of a superstructure to organise their anatomy allows the liquid suspension in which they live to be treated more like a material than a plant. In the hands of an architect, industrial designer, engineer, or systems designer this liquid plan becomes a living material, which can be integrated symbiotically into the architectural environment.
The plasticity of this living material allows us to create living structures. These living structures recycle lights, heat, and carbon dioxide from buildings and their inhabitants into rich green biomass that can be consumed as sustenance, used as agricultural fertiliser, or converted to biofuel.”
No matter whose hands these durable microalgae are in, without a doubt, algae will play a vital role in the bio-based economy in years to come.
As cultivation techniques and applications are developed and integrated across international markets, sustainable production of bio-based algae products are set to feature more heavily. The mighty microalgae is finally having it’s potential realised both in sustainable science and culture and we expect it to feature heavily in global markets in the future.