June 16th, 2011 by Wageningen University and Research Centre
On 17 June 2011 with the opening of AlgaePARC and the launch of the BioSolar Cells research project, a new research facility at Wageningen University & Research centre in the Netherlands starts exploring on a semi-industrial scale the potential of micro-algae as a sustainable source of energy and raw materials.
The aim is to raise the sustainable output of algae bioreactors while dramatically lowering the production costs.
The official opening ceremony will be performed by Chris Buijink, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation.
The AlgaePARC research facility (Algae Production and Research Centre) will bridge the gap between laboratory-based research and the industrial production of algae. The main algae cultivation systems will be measured against costs, efficiency and sustainability.
For this reason, AlgaePARC has four large (24 metre square) and three small (2.4 metre square) transparent water-filled installations where the algae can grow, using sunlight as the energy source. There are various types of cultivation systems including tubular reactors and the classic ‘open pond’ system.
The billions and billions of algae in the water use light, carbon dioxide and minerals to produce biomass, which is harvested at the end of the process. The biomass is dried and split into components such as oils, protein and starch and pigments such as carotene. These bulk substances form the raw materials for bio-diesel, degradable plastics, natural pigments, animal feed and food products. The nutrients that the algae need in order to grow come from agro-industrial residues and flue gas (CO2). So the nutrient cycle turns full circle with cleaner water and oxygen as an extra spin-off. This method of micro-algae cultivation can make a significant contribution to a sustainable economy.
Algae-based production methods do not encroach on the production of renewable energy and materials from crops such as maize, rapeseed and palm oil. Micro-algae can be very intensively cultivated in places that are unsuitable for agriculture or where eco-systems are not under threat, such as deserts, floating marine platforms, berms, roofs and polluted sites. The cultivation can take place entirely on the basis of salt water. A large area (the size of Portugal) will, however, be needed for algae-fuelled road transport in Europe; but this will generate 0.3 billion tonnes of protein, forty times the amount that Europe imports as soy protein. The CO2 balance will also improve: the annual CO2 output in Europe is 3.9 billion tonnes; 1.3 billion are needed for algae cultivation.
AlgaePARC will receive €3.3 million in funding from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, the Province of Gelderland and Wageningen UR. During the next five years the research will fall under the BioSolar Cells programme, which is linked to a consortium of eighteen businesses.
The BioSolar Cells project
BioSolar Cells will begin by researching the further development and utilisation of photosynthesis, the process whereby plants make use of sunlight. Amongst other things, sustainable solar cells can be assembled without necessitating investment in costly raw materials: these cells can even use carbon dioxide from the air and directly produce fuels such as methanol and hydrogen. The research programme will also concentrate on the use of micro-organisms that can convert sunlight into fuel and on increasing the biomass from plants with a view to securing food production in the future. BioSolar Cells is a joint project of the Dutch government (Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation), the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, the business community and nine knowledge institutes. It has a budget of approximately 42 million euros.
The industrial partners in the AlgaePARC research programme, which is part of the BioSolar Cells project, are: BASF, DSM, Drie Wilgen Development BV, ExxonMobil, GEA, Heliae, Neste Oil, Nijhuis Water Technology, Paques, PDX, Proviron, Roquette, Sabic, Simris Alg, Staatsolie, Synthetic Genomics, TOTAL and Unilever.
For more information about AlgaePARC please contact Professor René Wijffels, Bioprocestechnologie, Wageningen University, and Scientific Director of AlgaePARC, tel. +31 (0)317 482954 or email rene.wijffels @ wur.nl
For more information about BioSolar Cells please contact Dr René Klein Lankhorst, Director of Operations at BioSolar Cells, tel. +31 (0)317480938, rene.kleinlankhorst @ wur.nl, or Jac Niessen, science information officer, Wageningen UR, tel. +31 (0)317 485003, jac.niessen @ wur.nl.