They are green, they grow fast, they are powerful — microalgae are, so to say, small versions of the incredible Hulk. And they have their superhero story, too. Follow us on a trip to a biobased micro-world …
A couple of years ago, everybody talked about microalgae as the potential saviors of world climate. When the first planes took off powered by kerosene from algae, general media reported in depth about these bearers of hope. Since then, public discussion has calmed down again — but that doesn’t mean that nothing has happened in the field.
What is so exciting about microalgae? After all, they are only microscopical herbal life forms that occur in many aquatic and terrestrial habitats. Some of them have been cultivated in the lab for almost 120 years. Yet, a couple of characteristics combine and make them so attractive for biotechnology: Per surface unit, microalgae can produce up to five times as much biomass as conventional energy crops.
Algae have no seasonal growth cycle, but can be cultivated all year round. A volume of up to 100 tons dry biomass per hectar and year is deemed realistic. They do not compete for arable land with feed crops but can be cultivated in dry regions, on industrial wasteland or in the ocean. Their variety is immense: Of an estimated 100,000 species, less than 10,000 are classified, and only about 20 are used commercially.
A 9000 Tons Promise
A comprehensive study published by the EU Commissions Joint Research Centre quotes the total production volume in 2011 as 9,000 tons with large growth rates.
While traditionally the lion’s share of this market is made up of health food and dietary supplements, other applications are slowly gaining ground. Markets already employing high-value products include e.g. cosmetics and stable-isotope biochemicals as well as fluorescent protein markers.
Compared to the cultivation of agricultural crop, the domestication of microalgae has not even begun. Features to be addressed include the production of new molecules such as recombinant proteins or active pharmaceutical ingredients that are currently still in a research stage. Optimisation of production rates for established products remains an issue as well.
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