Nieuws - 26 april 2012

Making plastics from algae

In five years' time, we would be able to 'milk' algae to produce bioplastics. This is the aim of the research project SPLASH, for which Maria Barbosa has been granted 9 million euros by the EU.

The alga Botryococcus braunii
Algae are in. They show up in food supplements, biofuels, chemicals and bioplastics. Together with more than twenty PhD researchers and AlgaePARC, Wageningen UR has blast its way nicely into the international algae research scene. Maria Barbosa, a researcher at Biobased Products, has her hands full. She will manage this algae research project together with Professor Rene Wijffels of Bioprocess Engineering. After getting a subsidy for an algae research project in the Wageningen Centre for Biobased Economy, they now have 9 million euros from the EU for the research programme SPLASH.
SPLASH aims to make plastics from algae. The researchers are eyeing the alga Botryococcus, which produces long carbon chains, which can be compared to naphtha in the petrochemical industry. The carbon chains are good for making plastics. Moreover, the alga produces sugars suitable for plastics. It has one disadvantage, though: slow growing. SPLASH aims to identify the genes in Botryococcus which produce the long carbon chains and sugars, and then incorporate them into fast-growing algae.
The next step is to find out how to obtain the raw material needed for plastics from the algae. Currently, algae are killed before the essential substances are extracted. This is cumbersome and involves many process steps. Barbosa wants to extract the essential substances from living algae. Algae 'milking' has long been the subject of study in Wageningen, but there has been no success so far. With the participation of technology company PDX, which will install a machine in Wageningen, the researchers hope that they will be able to free carbon chains from living algae cells.
AlgaPARC will also be further equipped with a new panel reactor for algae cultivation. This will be provided by project partner Paques, a water technology company in Friesland. The Danish company Biotopic will install an algae reactor in Spain to produce biomass. While most of the expertise partners of Wageningen UR - such as Cambridge, Bielefeld and Munsterare - are in Northern Europe, Barbosa will carry out the production of algae in Southern Europe because the conditions there are more favourable for algae growth. As such, the University of Huelva in Spain is also a project partner.
Project leader Wageningen UR gets an amount of 3.5 million euros, the highest out of the project budget of 12.5 million euros. Besides the university and Food & Biobased Research, Plant Research International also gets a sum of money for genetic research of the alga. 'We are going to find out if the production of bioplastics from algae is technically and economically feasible,' says Barbosa. 'The most high-risk and difficult part of the project is milking the alga; we know very little of that technically.'