Improving extraction techniques and making cultivation of algae microorganisms cheaper are the main aims of the new research program, backed by the European Commission, as part of its Horizon 2020 program.
Microalgae, a source rich in omega-3, protein and beta-carotene, has gained popularity with manufacturers as a sustainable source of food and also fuel.
According to ENEA (Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development), the global market for products containing microalgae has an annual value of €6.4 billion, with China and Indonesia currently dominating the market.
European sales account for just 5% of the total microalgae market.
The VALUEMAG (Valuable Products from Algae Using New Cultivation and Extraction Techniques), project kicked off on April 26th, with its initial meeting held in Athens, Greece.
The group is made up of 11 research centres from nine countries, including Italy, Greece, Spain, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Austria, France, Slovakia and Cyprus.
Cost efficient and environmentally friendly
The project hopes to reduce costs of microalgae production, in order to allow the technology to become a competitive, durable alternative in the current market.
Currently, cultivation methods for microalgae are expensive, around €6.00 per kg.
The research project aims to significantly reduce the costs to €0.30 per kg, using new technologies including magnetic cultivation procedures.
“This technology immobilises the algal cells on a thin layer to optimise the use of water and nutrients,” said Antonia Molino, manager of the project’s activities for ENEA, who has been entrusted with testing new techniques as part of the project.
“The result is a very low consumption of these resources, the capture of CO2 from different production processes, and, above all, easy extraction of the high-value biological molecules – which are mostly antioxidants – like omega-3 and carotenoids”.
ENEA have been given a financial contribution of more than €760,000 to help fund its testing and research. The project also supports job creation in local EU communities, as 10 technicians will be required per 100,000 m2 of algae.
The new cultivation method, which has already been filed for patent and is patent pending, introduces superparamagnetic nanoparticles (SPANs) of 10 nanometres (nm) + 2 nm in diameter in the microalgae cell protoplasm of different microalgae species to obtain magnetic modified microalgae (MAGMA).
This method produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, and even has the capacity to reduce the current CO2 atmospheric concentration due to its photosynthetic metabolism, said the team.
Harvested microalgae will be used in food production, commercially valuable products such as nutraceuticals and cosmetics, as well as in CO2 capturing and water recycling methodologies.