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Towards the quintessential green technology

13 October 2010

BBSRC-funded researchers at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) have developed a scalable model for the sustainable production of valuable bioactive compounds from microalgae, which could provide alternatives to petroleum-based materials in healthcare products as well as in the development of biofuels and bioplastics.

Described as nature's very own power cells, microalgae represent a relatively untapped and diverse source of chemicals with potential applications across a number of different industries.

Commercial scale up, together with having recently obtained the full genome sequence of our target species, and our expertise in molecular science and chemistry puts us in a strong position".
Dr Carole Llewellyn, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

With rising oil prices and a move towards a low-carbon economy, there has been a surge in research to uncover novel microalgal compounds that could provide alternatives to those from petrochemical sources. The ability of microalgae to grow using waste CO2 emissions and sunlight, and not compete for land with crops, makes them an attractive proposition both economically and sustainably. To date, the commercial scale culture of microalgae has been primarily limited to sunny climates, with biomass cultivated for aquaculture and the production of carotenoids for use as natural food colourants and antioxidants using species not ideally suited for UK cultivation

In a recent project, funded by BBSRC as part of the Renewable Materials LINK Programme, a consortium of marine chemists, biotechnologists and engineers has demonstrated the commercial viability of microalgae culture in the UK, as well as the viability of synergistically integrating bioactive production with greenhouse gas emission utilisation and aquaculture. It builds on a long-term partnership between PML researchers and Boots UK Ltd that has led to the discovery of a number of bioactive microalgae compounds with beneficial properties and good levels of activity suitable for inclusion in a range of health and beauty products (patents: Llewellyn and Galley, 2002; O'Connor, Llewellyn & Skill, 2010).

"We wanted to maximise the use of resources across all aspects on the product lifecycle," explains YASMIN leader, PML's Dr Carole Llewellyn." Using bubble columns and a proprietary 5,000 litre photobioreactor (Skill, 2010) we have now selectively screened for a strain containing novel bioactive compounds that can grow rapidly under the conditions of temperature and light within the UK and is tolerant of flue gas CO2 emission."

Bubble columns. Image: PML

Bubble columns. © PML

The researchers are collaborating with Carlton Power, who are responsible for developing the Energy Park surrounding the Langage gas power station on the outskirts of Plymouth. "We are able to use nature's own way of absorbing CO2," explains Dr Llewellyn. "Compared to land plants, microalgae are very efficient absorbers of CO2 with very high growth rates. Although at the 5,000 litre scale the amount of CO2 we are capturing is small, it's still beneficial."

And it doesn't end there as, once bioactive compounds have been recovered, the waste biomass has the potential to be used as a dietary supplement for farmed fish. Working with researchers at the University of Plymouth, Llewellyn and her team were able to successfully evaluate the effects of algal by-products on the growth and development of tilapia. Their results have implications for the development of prebiotic applications originating from algal material as well as for commercial applications in the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr Llewellyn and her colleagues are continuing to look at innovative ways to maximise the enormous potential from integrated microalgae culture systems.

"Commercial scale up, together with having recently obtained the full genome sequence of our target species, and our expertise in molecular science and chemistry puts us in a strong position," says Llewellyn. Working with end users and biotechnology companies there are opportunities in a number of sectors aside from high value chemicals, these include for bulk chemicals, building block chemicals, biofuels and bioplastics."

Enhancing photosynthesis to achieve a step change in productivity

This summer, BBSRC launched a £2M call for innovative and transformative research proposals aimed at delivering a step change in the efficiency of photosynthesis through a multidisciplinary approach.

Our aim is to identify opportunities to advance state-of-the-art photosynthesis research in ways that provide new conceptual foundations for both achieving a step change in photosynthetic efficiency and its subsequent application.

Enhancing photosynthesis is an inspiring scientific challenge which offers the potential to address the food, energy, and environmental challenges of the future. Much can be done to increase crop yields but if we are to meet the significant global challenges of food security and bioenergy in the years ahead then a step change in productivity is required.

Next steps

  • Launch a product range based on this technology when the development phase has been completed
  • The construction of a 32,000 Litre capacity proprietary photobioreactor interfaced with a UK power station flue gas stack, funded by the Technology Strategy Board is underway
  • Develop further opportunities within the drug discovery and pharmaceutical sectors

External contact

Dr Carole Llewellyn, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

tel: 01752 633462

Contact

Tracey Duncombe

tel: 01793 414695
fax: 01793 413382