Clearing the Bottlenecks

A new Netherlands research park aims to overcome obstacles to commercial-scale algae production
By Erin Voegele | October 03, 2011

At first glance, Western Europe may seem like an improbable location for algae research. Researchers at Netherlands-based Wageningen University (WUR), however, are working to overcome obstacles to commercial-scale algae production in an effort to support the region’s biobased economy and enable the production of renewable feedstocks for the country’s vast chemical and industrial complex.

On June 17, WUR celebrated the grand opening of its new Algae Production and Research Center (AlgaePARC). According to René Wijffels, a professor of bioprocess engineering at WUR and the scientific director of AlgaePARC, the new research center grew out of ongoing algae research that has taken place at the university.

The work began several years ago, Wijffels says, when WUR researchers first began to look at algae production in relation to biofuels. In an effort to determine the economic feasibility of algae production, the team did a cost analysis of existing production techniques, specifically identifying all the technology and cost bottlenecks associated with each type of production system. Several companies became interested in the research, which, along with government support, helped move the project out of the lab and into the field.

Once all the bottlenecks preventing scale-up and their solutions are identified, Wijffels says the goal is to integrate the most economically and technically feasible aspects of the various production systems into a more effective technique for algae production. “The major goal is [to find] an economically and sustainable system to produce algae for both chemicals and fuels,” Wijffels says. “I say chemical and fuels because this is our vision; fuels alone will never be economically feasible. You need to make use of the complete, total value of the biomass.” To achieve that value metric, it’s not only about low-cost production, it’s also about the effective and efficient conversion of the biomass that is produced.

The Facilities

A unique aspect of AlgaePARC is that it houses four different pilot-scale algae production technologies, an open pond and three different photobioreactor designs. This will allow researchers to compare and contrast the different systems on a side-by-side basis. The facility also includes three smaller photobioreactors that are used for various research purposes. All the systems are located outdoors.

According to Wijffels, the four larger pilot-scale algae production systems represent existing technologies that are operational today. Each system offers its own advantages and disadvantages, he says. “For example, most experiences [show] that an open pond system is the cheapest to construct, but it is also more sensitive to infections and is less productive,” Wijffels says. “On the other hand, we have closed systems, which have higher productivity, but [often] have higher costs as well. Information on the systems published by WUR says that the four designs will be used to evaluate specific variables, such as mass transfer, light supply and photosynthetic efficiency. 

What they will do, Wijffels says, is compare those systems to identify what the costs, sustainability issues and bottlenecks are, and what can be done to improve them. “What we believe is, none of those systems will really give the conclusive answer [of the best design for a system], but we would like to understand those bottlenecks in order to make an improved design and construct it to really show that you can do it cheaper, and in a more sustainable way.”

According to Wijffels, four large systems will typically be used to grow a single strain of algae under set conditions for an entire year. Smaller systems, located onsite that allow for more flexible research, will be used to test more variables that impact over relatively brief timelines, he says. “There are typically elements [we will study] in combination as laboratory research and small-scale experiments outdoors to find the optimal conditions” for algae growth, Wijffels says. “When we have the optimal conditions, we will apply those conditions in the larger reactors.”

While AlgaePARC researchers will work with a few different strains of algae, Wijffels stresses that strain selection is not the goal of this particular research project. “Our strength is in the technology development,” he says. “That’s where we vest in. On the other hand, you cannot work on one single strain.” Strains are important so some screening is done in a number of projects. “On the other hand, we are also looking to collaborations with other groups that [have algae strains] that could be used in our systems.”

The project is currently scheduled to be operational for a period of five years. “The ambition is actually to expand in that research so that we can do more,” Wijffels says. “We believe that the whole project or development process will take 10 to 15 years.” Wijffels and his team are hopeful the project’s timeline will be expanded to encompass the additional years needed to complete the project, but initial results should be available next year. “Our ambition is to publish the first complete analysis of the systems within one year,” Wijffels says.

Information provided by WUR specifies four goals AlgaePARC is expected to achieve over the next five years. First, the research aims to compare the four different production systems in terms of photosynthetic efficiency, volumetric productivity, energy use, use of nutrients and water availability, robustness and scalability. Second, the project is expected to achieve and maintain a photosynthetic efficiency level of 5 percent, which Wijffels says is five times higher efficiency than current systems offer. Third, the team aims to develop an improved reactor concept or process strategy that significantly reduces costs. Finally, the group is expected to have gathered sufficient information to enable the design of a large-scale production facility.

Partners and Industry

Algae produced at AlgaePARC will be put to use for various purposes. According to Wijffels, the details are still being worked out. However, some of the algae biomass will be made available to WUR researchers, where it will be used to assist in the development of biorefining technologies. Companies that have partnered with AlgaePARC will also have access to algae that is produced. There are currently 18 companies that have signed on to support the project, including BASF, Exxon Mobil Corp., Neste Oil Corp., PDX, Saudi Basic Industries Corp., Synthetic Genomics Inc., Drie Wilgen, GEA Westfalia, Nijhuis, Proviron, Simris Alg, Total, DSM, Heliae, Paques, Roquette, Staatsolie Suriname and Unilever.

According to Wijffels, companies of all kinds are participating in AlgaePARC, including those in the fuels, chemicals, and food industries, as well as technology developers. He adds that one goal was to not have the research supported by a single fuel company or a single algae company.” His group sees this project as precompetitive research that many parties can benefit from, he says.

Wijffels explains that the companies involved in AlgaePARC do provide research funding, but do not actively participate in the research program. “The research program is executed by us,” he says. The companies do play a role in forming the objectives for the research, and are given access to the results. In addition, they will be given priority when patents that result from the research are licensed.

Although AlgaePARC is located in the Netherlands, Wijffels stresses that the research itself has a global scope. The companies we are collaborating with are not only Dutch companies, and not only European companies, he says. “We also have companies from the U.S. participating in this project.”

Ultimately, Wijffels says he thinks his region will benefit from the availability of algae biomass, but will likely not be a large-scale producer. “I don’t see the Netherlands as a huge producer of microalgae because our land is too small and our climate is not good enough,” he says. “But a lot of trade is taking place in the Netherlands. The food sector and the chemical sector…need end products from algae. So, in that respect, microalgae will play an important role in the Netherlands. We may not produce it in the Netherlands, but rather process microalgae that are produced elsewhere.”

As for AlgaePARC itself, Wijffels says his team hopes the project will continue to expand and grow. He says he expects that life-cycle analysis will be used as a tool to help give direction to the research. “We also would like to look at the whole chain of production, including harvesting and extraction technologies,” he adds. In addition, there are refining technologies the team would like to explore. According to Wijffels, WUR is also has research programs focused on genetic modification for creating more productive algae strains. The hope is these disparate research focuses will come together to create a better solution. “It’s not only scaling up,” Wijffels says. “You really have to integrate the different disciplines in the field, and harvesting and refining is absolutely a part of that.”

Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Algae Technology & Business
(701) 540-6986