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Microalgae, superfoods born at an electric power station

Algae For Healthy World seeks to ensure that microalgae become industrial supernutrients that can be applied to the agri-food industry, gastronomy or the pharmaceutical sector.

Can you imagine real superfoods for humans? Foods able to cover all a person’s basic nutritional requirements? This is what the “Algae for Healthy World” project has set out to achieve. An initiative that brings together seven companies and institutions and which has emerged from under the cloak of Endesa’s thermal power station in Carboneras (Almería), where the use of microalgae for the sequestration of CO2, due to their high absorption capability, has been studied since 2006.

To give us an idea, the power of CO2 sequestration of microalgae is four times higher than that of woodland; for this reason, research on microalgae was commenced in Carboneras along these lines. Now, however, the study focuses on the nutritional use of these micro-organisms. “Nowadays we already know general properties of microalgae, but we want to go further. The idea is to obtain high value-added foodstuffs for use in the agri-food or pharmaceutical industries or in gourmet cooking,” explains Roberto Andrés, manager of the project and of Endesa’s microalgae pilot facility.

Microalgae are not a novelty in the field of nutrition. These micro-organisms, which live by our side every day on beaches and coastlines, were already used as food in ancient China over 2,000 years ago. People fell back on them for food at times of scarcity and famine, although their use has not been exploited to date. Now the A4HW project has two years in which to make it a reality. Two years to transform three microalgae -Spirulina, Nannochloropsis Gaditana and Pyrocistis- into real superfoods: antioxidant pigments, bioactive compounds of a proteic nature, or sugars. And all of these are alternatives to the hydrogenated fats that cause so many cardiovascular problems.

 

All the actors involved in the project

Algae for Healthy World is a project led by Endesa coordinated by the University of Cádiz and enjoys the participation of partners such as AINIA, Mar de Cristal Marilium, the Spanish National Department for Scientific Research (CSIC), Novatec and Neoalgae. It has a budget of one million Euros, (co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (FEDER) of the European Union within the “Cooperation Challenges” programme of the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities), and its aim is to establish Spain as a leader in the production of these bioproducts.

One of the aspects where the A4HW project aims to move forward is in the knowledge of bioluminescence. The research executed by Mar de Cristal Marilium, led by the chef and “Michelin star” Ángel León, based on  studies performed by the University of Cádiz, headquarters of the International Campus of Excellence of the Sea, will act as a starting-point. His research laboratory has been able to take light from the sea and to serve it at the table. He has managed to select different luminescent bacteria and species of phytoplankton, to provide them with optimal conditions of temperature, pH or nutrients and to achieve a technique capable of generating light on a dish for over 20 minutes.

The CSIC will contribute to the project its knowledge in the field of microbiology and molecular biology. AINIA will participate as a technological centre specialising in cutting-edge technologies in the food sector. Neoalgae (a company specialising in consulting for microalgae cultivation) will execute the designs of the harvesting systems and control systems to optimise the production of microalgae. And Novatec (an engineering company) will fill the gap existing between laboratory and industrial processes in the field of application of microalgae.

 Photo montage about the research of microalgae

Everything planned on an industrial scale

At present, Algae for Healthy World is focused on the search for improvements in order to increase the growth rate of the microalgae. The idea is to develop this on an industrial scale, with the aim of obtaining a sustainable price in an ever more competitive market. And it is here that at Endesa we play a fundamental role with new “raceway” photobioreactors with a capacity 18 timed greater than those used to date.

“Currently, the estimated production of biomass is 500 litres per year per raceway, but it is hoped that the capacity may be even greater.” Miguel Gutiérrez knows what he is talking about. He is Operations Lead at Endesa’s microalgae pilot facility. Each day he watches the plants grow, to be harvested, dried and freeze-dried at a later date. The result: a high added-value product.

At Endesa, we know how important this challenge is. If we manage to develop industrial cultivation technology we will be able to place Spain at the forefront of a new market. “These products contain a quantity of proteins that, once hydrolysed, are easily absorbed by plants. This would be of help, for example, in their immunisation against diseases or pests,” says Miguel. And this is our goal at Endesa: to make feasible the scaling-up to an industrial level of technology applied to microalgae, and making it sustainable from all points of view, whether economic, social or environmental.

The objective of all those involved is to popularise the inclusion of microalgae in our everyday diet and that their viable production should become a reality. The production of biocompounds for food use from these micro-organisms and their sustainable cultivation opens the doors to a technology that might put an end to the scarcity of food in the future. Might we be able to think of mitigating future food requirements in the most disadvantaged areas? Could this be the definitive step toward the creation of the superfoods of the future? The project began with questions like these. For the end of the story, wait just two years.

Additional Note: The “Algae for Healthy World” (A4HW) project has a budget of one million Euros for a term of two years, and has been financed by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities under the Cooperation Challenges programme (specifically, the “Food Safety and Quality Challenge: Productive and Sustainable Farming, Natural Resources, Marine and Maritime Research”) and co-financed by the European Union Structural funds (European Regional Development Fund, FEDER) with the aim of promoting Technological Development, Innovation and Quality Research.

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Microalgae production at Carboneras facility

  • The C02 sequestration and fixing power of microalgae is four times higher than that of the same surface area of woodland.
  • Under normal conditions (temperature, supply of CO2, sunlight…), Endesa’s microalgae facility in Carboneras enables an average algal concentration harvest of 9,000 litres per week to be achieved throughout the year.
  • After the process of separation of liquids and solid product, 1 ton of microalgae biomass with 20-25% microalgae content is obtained annually.
  • The growth and development cycle of microalgae, from the culture collection stage until its harvesting when in optimal conditions, takes one and a half months.
  • The capacity of each of the two raceway-type microalgae cultivation bioreactors is 18.000 litres. About 500 litres of biomass is obtained from each every year.
  • The centrifugation process enables the separation of the solid part from the liquid part and the obtaining of a concentrated biomass with 20% microalgal product.
  • The ideal concentration of the crop is 1 g/litre, to be harvested and the solid part separated from the liquid.
  • The centrifuged biomass is frozen and then freeze-dried, so that the microalgae retain all their properties and are ready for use as a food biocompound.
  • The current annual yield of Endesa’s 1,500-square-metre microalgae facility in Almería is 20 grams per square metre.
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