Algae: the new gold?

Share this article

Algae production is a technology with great potential and could mean a solution to many environmental problems, but a real breakthrough still has to happen. “More research is needed to make the production of algae more sustainable and efficient,” says PhD student Sue Ellen Taelman from the Faculty of BioScience Engineering at Ghent University. Algae could for example be used in aquaculture and the animal feed sector, but a lot of optimization is still necessary.

Taelman examined the challenges that the producers of algae are facing with. This was done on the basis of case studies in Proviron, a Belgian company that grows algae in patented bags, and in the Dutch Lelystad, where algae are grown in open ponds. First, she determined on both sites the amount of energy that is required to run the whole production process. “Manufacturers of algae have the impression that they are working sustainably,” says Taelman. “They culture algae on flue gas, in which CO2 and waste heat are present. However, the pumps and fans in the installation consume so much energy that it amounts to a zero sum game, or even a negative operation in the field of sustainability. Yet, the prospects are not pessimistic. There are enough possibilities to enhance this process to create more energy- efficient technology.” Additionally, Taelman noted that Proviron purchased CO2 instead of reusing its own emissions. The company also used new nitrogen, phosphorus and trace elements to grow the algae in stead of nutrients from waste streams. “But this problem is due to the law. When you grow algae on nutrients from waste streams, it is not allowed to use them within the human food chain,” says Taelman. Secondly, the supply of waste is not always assured, and the quantity and composition can vary greatly throughout the year, which could lead to the death of the algae. The production of algae does have one big advantage: they are fairly easy to grow. Because they grow in an aqueous environment, they form no competition with plants on land.

Taelman will publicly defend her doctoral thesis on 12th of May, at the Aula of Ghent University.