Germany’s state-of-the-art algae research centre opens

[Germany] The Technical University of Munich, Germany, has opened a unique algae cultivation centre at its Ludwig Bölkow Campus to develop new processes for producing biokerosene and renewable chemical products.

The new AlgaeTec facility is being supported by Airbus, and includes three areas of algae cultivation, with laboratory and office space. Industrial biocatalysis professor Thomas Brück says that a major advantage of algae is that there is no competition with food production. As it grows in saltwater, it does not require freshwater or pesticides and does not compete for land with arable crops. Algae can generate up to ten times higher yields than crops per hectare. This makes it an attractive research target.

One area of research the facility will look at is the species of algae that can be cultivated. It is thought that there are around 150,000 species of algae in the world, but only 5,000 of these have been characterised and only ten are commercially exploited.

AlgaeTec will be particularly useful as the state-of the-art, energy-efficient building is able to simulate the growing conditions of any location in the world. The façade of the building is made of specialised glass that allows UV light to pass through. An alternative material that could have been selected, and one that is often used in medical applications, is UV transparent clear plastics, as seen on this website – There are two outer halls to simulate tropical and arid conditions while the middle hall is designed for cultivation and preparatory experiments. Several open and closed photobioreactors can operate in parallel in the same and different climate conditions.

As well as the UV-transparent glass, the building has additional LED lighting. They generate light at 300–800 nm wavelengths, similar to the sun, to simulate the precise lighting conditions of virtually anywhere on earth.

“No one can predict whether or not a specific alga from the South Pacific will be just as productive in Germany as it is in its native environment,” says Brück. “In the same vein, no one knows whether species which are successful in Bavaria would function as well in the light conditions of the Sahara, but now we can test all of this in our technical facilities.”

AlgaeTec is part of the Bavarian State Ministry of Economic Affairs and Media, Energy and Technology’s AlgenFlugKraft (Algae Aircraft Fuel) project. As well as Airbus, the project’s partners are TUM’s Department of Technical Chemistry II, providing expertise in catalytic conversion of biomass, TUM Institute of Biochemical Engineering, which will look at the technical scaling of cultivation, Clariant Produkte Deutschland, with expertise in algae processing and oil separation, and conys, which will look at hydrogen and biogas production.


Photo: The façade is made of specialised glass that allows UV light to pass through (pic: Andreas Heddergott)

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