Algae and bacteria

Much research is currently being done on algae as a source for biodiesel. As a raw material for biodiesel, algae have a number of advantages over plants: they have a high oil content and are very productive. In addition, algae don’t need fresh water to grow, and can make use of industrial waste material as a source of nutrients. The algae also contain proteins, which can be used in the production of food and animal feed.

 By 2016 BioSolar Cells should have produced algae or bacteria that can convert sunlight into biofuel at an overall efficiency of 5%. We are also working on producing biofuel from algae on a semi-industrial scale and on developing fatty-acid producing algae with improved growth characteristics. BioSolar Cells also provides systems-biological knowledge required for engineering the photosynthetic machinery and for genetic control of metabolic processes.

Micro algae for biomass production

In a 10 minute video René Wijffels, Maria Barbosa and Jean-Michel Brusson explain about AlgaeParc. Four years after the first optimistic calculations, the experimental cultivation of algae appears to be meeting expectations. Production costs have been more than halved, while the profit made on some crop components already exceeds production costs. According to René Wijffels, Professor of Bioprocess Engineering at Wageningen University, the sustainable production of raw materials for food and animal feed, chemicals, materials and biofuels is well on its way to be economically feasible by 2025. This conclusion is based on experiments at the Wageningen research facility AlgaePARC. (Source: Wageningen UR, 10 June 2014).

Competitive cost prices?

The scale of algae production at present is still too small to be able to extract biofuel that can compete with the conventional, fossil-based fuels. Increasing the scale of production will lower production costs from about €10 per kg algae to about €4. At an oil content of 50% this still means a cost price of €8 per litre, still far higher than the current price of diesel at the pump. Researchers believe that it should be possible to reduce the cost price to 40 cents per kg algae through a variety of technical measures. These will include automated systems that use less energy and fewer materials. But producing biodiesel from algae will only really become competitive if we can also find productive uses for all the other components as well as the oil. These include proteins and chemicals that are of interest for the food and cosmetics industries.

Three knowledge gaps

 In this part of BioSolar Cells the emphasis is on the development and application of knowledge in the fields of systems biology, synthetic biology and growing systems. We focus on three knowledge gaps:

1. Systems biology for improving the performance of cyanobacteria and algae for optimized production of biofuel and other:
Project C.2.1: New photoynthetic cell factories for bio-butanol production
Project C.2.2: Microalgae as photosynthetic cell factories for biofuel production
Project C.2.4: From proteins to the thylakoid membrane
Project C.2.8: Harvesting sunlight in a biodegradable polymer;

2. Synthetic biology for improving the performance of cyanobacteria and algae for optimized production of biofuel and other products:
Project C.2.1: New photoynthetic cell factories for bio-butanol production
Project C.2.8: Harvesting sunligfht in a biodegradable polymer 
Project C.2.9: A complementary photosystem for proton pumping in Synechocystis PCC 6803

3. Optimized production of biofuel and other products in mass cultures of algae/eukaryotic phototrophs:
Project C.2.2: Microalgae as photosynthetic cell factories for biofuel production
Project C.2.7: Growth optimization of diatoms: antenna size of photosynthetic proteins and the role of stress and CO2 

Applied research

The private sector participates in seven ‘Utilization projects’:
U2.1 Algae Pilot Production and Development Centre Research programme: Selection of algae strains based on the comparisson of photosynthetic activity in different ractor production unit
U.2.1.1 Algaeparc extension
U2.2 Direct conversion of CO2 and water, into ethylene and oxygen, using light energy and Synechocystis cells as catalyst
U2.3 Harvesting sunlight with plants and microorganisms: imaging and metabolomics with novel microcoil and cryoprobe at ultrahigh magnetic field
U2.4 Algae for green chemicals: physiology and growth optimization of marine diatoms for production of Long Chain Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids
U2.5 High efficiency seaweed based photo-bioreactor
U2.6 Photosynthetic Algae Power
U2.7 Time-separated wavelength tuning for high yield phototrophic growth
U2.8 Thylakoid multi-scale engineering platform

Fundamental research

In addition to the core projects, two basic research projects are carried out by the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM):
1. Studying the regulation of light harvesting in the green alga Chlamydomonas to improve its productivity under mass culture conditions;
2. Expanding society’s toolbox to harvest solar energy:  Creating multiscale computational models to optimize oxygenic photosynthesis.

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