Algae Factory produces valuable microalgae from industrial effluents

Water purification and algae cultivation are combined in the Algae Factory project as an industrial and commercial activity based on the principles of circular economy. Instead of using industrial fertilisers, the project is developing a method to cultivate microalgae through the utilisation of nutrients found in industrial effluents.

While algae cultivation is primarily carried out by using artificial fertilisers, the method developed in the project is based on the principles of circular economy, where industrial effluents are considered a valuable and recoverable raw material. The project combines two useful approaches from the perspective of a circular economy:

  • Algae help clean up nutrient-rich industrial effluents.
  • In conjunction with water purification, the organic and inorganic substances included in the effluents are used as a natural fertiliser in microalgae cultivation to produce valuable substances, such as fatty acids, vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates and antioxidants.

“What is unique, in addition to this novel cultivation technique, is that one of the microalgae used in the project has been isolated from a Finnish lake,” says Elina Peltomaa, head of the project.

Versatile microalgae

Water purification in industrial plants is a statutory expense for businesses. In the traditional waste water purification process, nutrients are not recovered for further use. However, industrial effluents can be utilised before they end up in a water treatment plant; they contain valuable organic and inorganic compounds and nutrients which can be further used as an excellent growth medium in algae cultivation, producing at the same time useful algae biomass. Thanks to the absence of harmful substances, many industrial effluents are suitable for algae cultivation.

“Microalgae cultivation can generate valuable ingredients for human and animal food. Microalgae metabolism produces many valuable substances, such as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) and other bioactive lipids, pigments and vitamins that have great financial value,” says researcher Marika Tossavainen

These compounds can be used, for example, in functional foods and dietary supplements. An algae factory can increase the ecological sustainability of the food economy. Western countries have become aware of the ecological effects of intensive farming and meat consumption, understanding that the strain put on the global ecosystem by plant-based food is much smaller.

Microalgae can provide important raw material for fish feed, as fish farms currently use fish feed manufactured from smaller fish. Overfishing, threatening the sustainability of fish stocks, is an ecological problem, as the continuity and diversity of species are at stake. This is why plant-based nutrition for fish is being developed.

“The absence of the important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in fish feed is a disadvantage that negatively impacts the quality of fat in farmed fish, and this has an adverse effect on the nutritional value of fish in human consumption. Microalgae produce these fatty acids, which is why they could partly substitute for fish in feed,” notes Peltomaa.

Microalgae cultivation piloted at a fish farm

The algae cultivation is taking place in the form of a pilot project, in which the effluent and sludge produced by a land-based fish farm will serve as the growth medium. A 500-litre algae cultivation reactor, based on the latest technology and the first of its kind in Finland, has been procured for the project.

“We are also preparing a commercial strategy. As part of that, we are trying to clarify a number of issues, such as in which industrial sector would we be best positioned to operate in, in the most productive and profitable manner?” says Roy Nyberg, the project’s Commercialisation Manager at Helsinki Innovation Services.

The preparatory project for commercialisation will end in September 2019.

Algae factory founded on a sound scientific basis

The combination of expertise in both basic and applied research has been essential to the project.

Implementing the method under development in the project requires scientific ecological expertise in algae. Basic research headed by Elina Peltomaa, the project’s principal investigator, has been key to understanding which algae contain the most valuable and useful components.

“The same compounds that are valuable in cultivated microalgae are also valuable in the food chains of natural water environments,” Peltomaa states.

Based on the findings of this basic research, the project has progressed into applied research, resulting in Marika Tossavainen’s doctoral dissertation published in 2018 (in Finnish). The work is focused on the cultivation of microalgae through the use of industrial effluents, the high-value compounds in the biomass produced, and their utilisation.

The people and funders behind the innovation

The algae project originated in the long-running research carried out by University Lecturer Anne Ojala, who was joined by Elina Peltomaa as a research partner, at which point the group investigated the production of biodiesel from microalgae. As the work progressed further, the group expanded by Professor Martin Romantschuk and Researcher Marika Tossavainen, and later by Research Assistant Leon Mercier. In recent years, the group has investigated, among other things, the nutritional suitability of algae biomass cultured in industrial effluents and the high-value compounds extracted from this mass. The research group has also collaborated with a research group focused on food sciences, headed by Professor Vieno PiironenTossavainen’s doctoral dissertation on the topic was published in October 2018. Roy Nyberg from Helsinki Innovation Services is in charge of commercialisation in the project.

The group’s algae research, and particularly its commercialisation as one of the goals, has received research and innovation funding from the government through the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation Tekes, and its successor Business Finland. Funding has also been granted by the European Regional Development fund.