Algonomi produces valuable microalgae from industrial effluents

Algonomi, a startup founded on biological expertise in algae at the University of Helsinki, integrates water purification and algae cultivation into industrial and commercial activity with an approach based on the circular economy. The company has been developing a technique which utilises carbon dioxide released from industrial processes as the carbon source in algae cultivation.

In addition to taking advantage of industrial processes, the company is able to utilise liquid industrial sidestreams, replacing industrial fertilisers with nutrients found in industrial effluents, for the purposes of cultivating microalgae biomass. 

While algae cultivation is primarily carried out using artificial fertilisers, the production method developed by the company is based on circular economy thinking, where industrial effluents are considered a valuable and recoverable raw material. The method combines three useful factors from the perspective of the circular economy:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) is collected from industrial process gases to be used in the cultivation of microalgae in a bioreactor.
  • 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 components, 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 by the company has been extracted from a Finnish lake,” says researcher Elina Peltomaa, one of the founders of Algonomi Oy.

Valuable components from microalgae

Water purification in industrial plants is a statutory requirement and expense for businesses. In the traditional wastewater 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 yields valuable ingredients for human and animal food. Microalgae metabolism produces many valuable components, such as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) and other bioactive lipids, pigments and vitamins that have great financial value,” adds researcher Marika Tossavainen, another founding member of the startup. 

Such compounds can be utilised, for example, in functional food, nutritional supplements and cosmetics. This way, Algonomi’s production process also supports a food economy that is ecologically more sustainable. 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.

Versatile microalgae

Algonomi produces valuable components for, among other sectors, the cosmetics industry. Manufacturers of cosmetics can use these components extracted from microalgae to make products that promote skin health. Moreover, they can replace intentionally added microplastics with a starch grain produced by the specific microalga, which is insoluble in water. 

A future goal is to also produce microalgae for the food and feed industries. Industrial food producers can use valuable components extracted from microalgae to add vitamins, fatty acids, antioxidants, pigments, proteins and carbohydrates to their products. 

As for feed manufacturers, the benefits of algae relate to animal welfare. Research has shown that certain microalgae can increase cows’ feed digestibility by 15% while reducing methane emissions by 10%. In terms of feeding larger cow populations, the latter is a significant factor in the fight against climate change.

Algonomi is founded on solid science 

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

The implementation of Algonomi’s production process has required scientific knowledge in ecology and expertise in algae. Finding those strains of algae that contain the most valuable and useful components has required basic research, which has been conducted, among others, by Elina Peltomaa and Anne Ojala.

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

Findings gained through basic research on the production process have been combined with observations made in applied research, leading to a doctoral dissertation completed by Marika Tossavainen in 2018(article in Finnish only), which focuses on microalgaculture with the help of industrial effluents, as well as on the high-value compounds in the biomass produced and their utilisation.

The people and funders behind the research and the startup

Based on algae research, the Algonomi Oy startup was established by a group whose founding members are researchers Anne Ojala, Elina Peltomaa, Martin Romantschuk, Marika Tossavainen, Léon Mercier and CEO Roy Nyberg.

The algae project originated in the research carried out by University Lecturer Anne Ojala, later joined by Elina Peltomaa, at which point the group began considering the production of biodiesel from microalgae. The work progressed further, and the group was also joined by Professor Martin Romantschuk and researcher Marika Tossavainen. Last to join the research group is doctoral student Léon Mercier. In recent years, the group has investigated, among other things, the suitability of algae biomass cultured in industrial effluents for nutrition and the high-value compounds extracted from this mass. The research group has also collaborated with a group headed by Professor Vieno PiironenTossavainen’s doctoral dissertation on the topic was published in October 2018. Before establishing the company, the group explored the launch of business operations with the help of project funding awarded by Business Finland, with the related commercialisation activities coordinated by Roy Nyberg

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.