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EU algae project aims to make a SPLASH

By Joe Whitworth , 21-Jan-2013
Last updated on 21-Jan-2013 at 13:51 GMT

An EU research project is aiming to ‘milk’ algae to develop polymers from algae sugars and hydrocarbons for use in end markets such as packaging.

The building blocks for the polymers will be derived from the sugars (polyesters) and hydrocarbons (polyolefins) exuded by the algae.

The four year project, led by Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research, will use microalgae as a renewable raw material for production and recovery of hydrocarbons and (exo)polysaccharides and boost conversion to renewable polymers.

Sustainable Polymers from Algae Sugars and Hydrocarbons (SPLASH) has been granted €9m in EU funding and began in November last year.

Potential for plastics

The researchers are studying the alga Botryococcus, which produces long carbon chains which are good for making plastics.

However, it is slow growing so the project aims to identify the genes in the algae which produce the long carbon chains and incorporate them into fast-growing algae.

At present, algae are killed before the essential substances are extracted but the end aim is to ‘milk’ the useful substances from living algae.

Maria Barbosa, a researcher at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research, is managing the project with Professor Rene Wijffels of Bioprocess Engineering, and told FoodProductionDaily.com that algae uses are still fairly small scale.

“We aim to bring the production chain together, to look at the market and to look at products, to provide a proof of concept.

“It will not solve all the problems, but we will use the knowledge we have already to speed up the process and save steps to make it more efficient.”

When asked what the hope was at the end of the project, she added: “To show the principal of producing biopolymers with algae, it is a proof of principle, what we are doing is possible on a pilot scale not at production level, but we will have the knowledge and be one step further to industrial scale.

“At the end of the project I will have a rope made of algae in my hand.”

Algae targeted

The bioproduction platforms that will be explored are green alga Botryococcus braunii and the green microalga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, to which the hydrocarbon and polysaccharides producing genes from Botryococcus will be transferred.

“The building blocks for these polymers will be derived from the sugars (polyesters) and hydrocarbons (polyolefins) exuded by the algae: adipic acid from galactose, 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid from glucose, rhamnose and fucose, 1,4-pentanediol from rhamnose and fucose, ethylene from ‘green naphtha’, propylene from ‘green naphtha’,” said the project brief.

“The sugar-derived building blocks will be converted to new condensation polymers, including poly(ethylene 2,5-furandioate) (PEF) and poly(1,4-pentylene adipate-co-2,5-furandioate).”

Partner research institutions include the Centre for Research and Technology Hellas (CERTH), The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung e.V., Universidad de Huelva, EGE Universitesi, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Wageningen Universiteit and Universität Bielefeld.

Companies participating are nova-Institut für politische and ökologische Innovation GmbH, PNO Consultants BV, Lankhorst Euronete Portugal SA, Rhodia Operations, Organic Waste Systems NV, Paques BV, Biotopic, Value for Technology BVBA (VFT), Avantium Chemicals BV, Lifeglimmer GmbH and Pursuit Dynamics PLC.

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