Microalgae production is a fascinating and growing industry that holds much potential for the future of fuels, food and drug products, plastics, and more. Algae may offer a viable alternative energy source, with algae biofuels estimated at a production capability of 6 billion gallons per year. Algae may offer ways to mitigate climate change, and provide alternate means of producing plastics and offering critical micronutrients to the global population.
Algae grow quickly and consume large amounts of CO2, which can offset some of the effect of global warming. Algae production does not compete with agriculture, and can be used to purify wastewater. Certain species of algae can be used to provide important nutrients, with some types of spirulina and chlorella already commercially available.
Here are a few of the ways algae is becoming big business(It’s estimated that the algae industry will add 220,000 jobs to the global economy by 2020), and some future predictions for the market:
Algae can be used as a feedstock for many different varieties of biofuels, including biodiesel, renewable activation fuel, green gasoline, and alcohol fuels. According to a study by the Algae Biomass Organization, industry insiders believe that algae fuels will be price competitive within the decade, with algae-based gas and ethanol predicted to fall in the $3 – $5 per gallon range by 2020. Along with other renewable energy sources, this may offer opportunities for investment in cleaner energy consumption without making huge changes to infrastructure in cars and roadways.
There are also experiments geared toward genetically modifying algae to produce Hydrogen. Algae can split hydrogen from water in the right conditions, but this process is hindered by hydrogenases, which are efficient where oxygen is scarce, and inactivated in its presence. Researchers are looking at ways to modify these enzymes to produce large amounts of hydrogen for use as fuel.
Algae can be a non-animal based supplier of essential Omega-3 fatty acids, which are critical for human health. The human body cannot produce these acids on its own, and traditional sources have come from seafood and animal products. Algae production is quickly growing as an alternative for Omega-3 fatty acids. Algae can also provide sustainable animal feeds, due to high micronutrient and vitamin contents. Algae can be used for food pigment, and has been used in aquaculture for decades as a high quality source of feed for shellfish.
Algae can be used in many chemical applications, from the production of fertilizers and plastics, to commercially available cosmetics. These are emerging aspects of the industry, and will offer exciting developments in coming years.
The future of the industry
In a recent survey from the Algea Biomass Organization, 70% of producers expected to expand production this year. However, with falling oil prices driving energy costs down, the industry faces challenges. Other challenges come from the need for more cost efficient production systems, demand for better harvesting and extraction systems, and better scalability for production.
These are solutions that the industrial automation market is poised to offer. In fact, InduSoft recently did a case study with one system integrator that helped a microalgae production plant increase profits and production efficiency with their innovation, and a platform of InduSoft Web Studio. You can read more about the work Aqualgae did here: