Mathias Kolle, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, is leading one of seven research projects recently awarded J-WAFS funding.  Mathias aims to tackle the challenges of large-scale microalgae cultivation for food and fuel, and help turn microalgae into a sustainable and energy-efficient option for feeding a growing human population in the future.

Abdul Latif Jameel’s quarterly magazine, ‘Opening Doors’,  spoke to Professor Kolle about this fascinating project and its aims.

What is the title of your research project?

The project is called ‘Multifunctional Light-Diffusing Fibers for Simultaneous Light Management and Fluid Transport in Microalgae Bioreactors’.

What is the project about?

The need for food and feedstock for animals will increase dramatically by 2050, by which time the world population is predicted to reach over 9.1 billion. This is a rise of over 25 percent on the current figure, according to United Nations forecasts.  This growing population will need more and more food to survive.  However, research suggests that the growth rate in yields of the major cereal crops that sustain much of the world’s population is declining. Additionally, further intensification of agriculture has severe side effects.  Agriculture is one of the major sources of global warming and puts intense strain on water resources.  Large amounts of water are needed to sustain production, and substantial water pollution results from agricultural run-off, which poses a threat to many ecosystems around the globe.

Recent research into the generation of food, feedstock, and biofuel from microalgae suggests that algae is much more efficient at generating usable organic matter (or ‘biomass’) than ‘traditional’ crops like oil palm, wheat and corn.

This suggests that the cultivation of microalgae could be an important element of future strategies to ensure food and fuel security for the world’s rapidly increasing population.

Could you explain what algae is?

Microalgae is the green ‘goo’ you often see in ponds, lakes, rivers and along the sea shore.  It is made up of small organisms – you can see them very well under the microscope – that are only a couple of micro-meters to several hundred micro-meters across. A micro-meter is a tenth of a millimeter, so that’s pretty small.

Microalgae can grow in virtually any type of water – sea water, fresh water, brackish water.  It tends to grow near the surface, where it has ready access to sunlight and carbon dioxide (CO2), but it can extend several meters lower down into the water.

What is the issue you are seeking to address?

Several companies across the world are developing and utilizing algae culturing on an industrial scale for food and fuel, but current methods are not yet economically viable.  Algae grows in water and thrives on light and carbon dioxide. This usually means that algae near the surface of the water – with easier access to light and CO2 – tends grow better than algae nearer the bottom, where light and CO2 are scarcer. In order to ensure time-efficient production of high quality algae, the whole culture has to be exposed to light and CO2. Presently, the methods used to ensure adequate supply of light and CO2 to the entire algae culture require a lot of energy, which significantly increases production costs.

How does your project overcome these challenges?

Our research aims to develop a new method for growing algae on an industrial scale that is economically sustainable and does not require large amounts of energy.

At its core is a new type of optical fiber that will enable us to distribute light and CO2 to microalgae cultures more effectively and efficiently.  With the J-WAFS seed funding, we will design, build and test different variations of optical fibers. Our goal is to be able to control the light and CO2 that is delivered to all the algae.  In simple terms, the fibers will take light and CO2 from the surface of the water and channel it down to those parts of the algae tank that have less access to light and CO2.  We estimate that this method could save around 50 percent or more of the energy currently required.

This simple, energy-efficient means of ensuring homogeneous light distribution and simultaneous delivery of CO2 will help industrial algae cultivation reach its full economic and social potential for food, feedstock, and biofuel generation.

What are the benefits of using algae to produce biomass for fuel, feedstock and food?

Large-scale algae culturing can contribute to food security: algae can produce biomass for nutrition and fuel more efficiently than more common crops like oil palm, wheat and corn.  Consequently, industrial cultivation of algae would not only yield a more efficient production of biofuels, it could also enable the generation of nutrients for food and feedstock.

Although increased industrial interest in the culturing of microalgae in recent years has largely been driven by the prospect of more efficient biofuel production – algae can be 40-times more efficient then land-based oil producing plants – cultivating microalgae for biomass production would also have strong positive effects for food security.

A bigger emphasis on using algae as a source of biomass would enable us to shift biofuel production from agricultural crops to algae aquacultures.  This in turn would mean more land would be available to grow crops for food, rather than fuel, and ultimately ease pressure on food supply and prices.

Another exciting benefit of algae application is that by basing the algae farm near a wastewater treatment plant, the algae can do part of the work of wastewater treatment, because they thrive on the nutrients that are in wastewater.

Algae can also reduce CO2 emissions at power plants.  For example, from the smoke stack of a power plant you could channel the flue gases through the algae culture, and the algae will remove the CO2.

What could be the implications of this technology for the Middle East and North Africa?

The long hours of sunshine all year round, access to seawater and availability of non-arable land for algae cultivation mean that much of the Middle East has strong potential for producing algae-based biofuels.

The presence of numerous oil refineries and power plants from which CO2 could be captured and delivered to the algae, as well as the large number of sewage and wastewater treatment plants, also make the Middle East an ideal location for industrial algae cultivation.

Indeed, several organizations in the region are already active in the algae industry. In Saudi Arabia, the King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology is funding an innovative project called Saudi Arabia Biorefinery from Algae (SABA Project) to increase research and training in microalgae-based biofuel production.  In Abu Dhabi, the Algae Research Laboratory and Microbial Environmental and Chemical Engineering Laboratory (MECEL) at the Mazdar Institute of Science and Technology is undertaking research to assess and analyze algae-based fuel for the production of aviation and jet fuel, while Dubai-based Lootah Biofuels is working with Singapore-based algae oil producers, AlgaOil, to develop raw materials for biofuels, such as algae, that contain a high oil content.

Do you expect to have completed your research by August 2019, when this round of J-WAFS funding comes to an end?

Hopefully, we will have proven the concept that this technology is capable of supplying light and CO2 to algae cultures at large scale.

Once we’ve achieved that, the next step is to commercialize the product, either as a spin-out of our research or by working with existing companies that have an interest in this field.  In fact, we aim to start talking to companies in the sector quite early in the process, so we can adapt our research to the actual needs of the market.

As the world seeks new sources of food and fuel to address the forecast population growth, this technology is a growing industry for investment.  According to industry research, by Transparency Market Research[1], the global algae market was valued at US$ 608m in 2015 and is projected to reach US$ 1,143m, with a volume of 27,552 tons, by 2024.