Big plans for minnows of nature (Day 35)

How inventive are chemical engineers and how could you measure their inventiveness? It’s a bit of a rhetorical question and one that probably doesn’t need an answer, but it did cross my mind the other day when I received an email from IChemE promoting a Webinar about microalga Dunaliella by the University of Greenwich in the UK.

The University are leading a €10m international project, called the ‘D-Factory,’ to build a biorefinery to develop the microalga Dunaliella as a sustainable raw material and turn every part of the alga into something useful.

In fact, they are looking at potential products including food, pharmaceuticals, plastic and fuel. This is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone who is part of the chemical engineering ‘family’, but probably something relatively unknown in the wider world.

As a random test of this notion I threw in the word ‘algae’ into an online word association website and waited for the answers. I got about 50 ‘associated’ words in the end, which did include ‘food’.

But ‘energy’, ‘plastic’, ‘fuel’, ‘pharmaceuticals’, ‘factory’ and ‘refinery’ and words of similar meaning were all absent. OK, not very scientific, but I think it is an example of two things: firstly, our extraordinary ability to make valuable and complex products from the most simple of things. And secondly, probably only a minority of people know that we can do these things.

Salt lake

Bright pink-orange microalgae can be found in salt lakes and coastal waters.

This special microalga can also capture CO2 and grow in some of the world’s harshest environments. It’s these remarkable properties and potential of this minnow of nature which has brought together 13 research institutions and businesses from eight countries, to look at the large-scale cultivation of microalgae, novel harvesting technologies and bioprocessing development.

Project leader Professor Pat Harvey (who is also presenting the IChemE Webinar on 2 July), from the University’s Faculty of Engineering & Science, explains: “The race is on to develop a broader spectrum of compounds from algae, which can be turned into high-value products including food and medicines.

Professor Pat Harvey

Professor Pat Harvey

“If we can make algae biorefineries commercially viable, we will have developed a new industry founded on an environmentally-kind raw material which is also sustainable. The potential is huge.

“By 2020 these algae may also provide us with sustainable fuel. The science is there but at the moment the costs don’t add up.”

If you can’t make the webinar on 2 July, you can find out more about this inventive project online at the University of Greenwich’s website.