Wageningen University starts the development of an algae park on Bonaire. The salt pans on this island in the Leeward Antilles are well suited for floating algae reactors, says René Wijffels, professor in Bioprocess Technology.
The government of the island of Bonaire wants to both diversify the economy and make it more sustainable, as the current economy is mostly based on tourism. The government has therefore asked Wijffels whether he could set up an algae park to provide an energy supply. ‘My answer was: no, that is currently not achievable from an economic point of view.’ But Wijffels does expect that in time, it would be affordable to produce fish and animal feed from algae on Bonaire.
Bonaire, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and OCTA (the innovation programme for overseas countries and territories of the European Union) are therefore currently financing a 200,000-euro study into the feasibility of algae cultivation on the island. TUI also contributes to the financing. The travel company wants to investigate the possibilities of sustainable flights and ecotourism on the island and aims at a broader awareness on sustainable tourism among travellers.
At the same time as the study, NWO finances two PhD candidates who are to improve algae cultivation. The first PhD candidate will search Bonaire for algae that can withstand high temperatures. Wijffels: ‘The cooling of algae production systems is expensive. We therefore search algae that can grow at higher temperatures, thus removing the need for cooling. We want to select algae that grow in small pools of seawater on land around Bonaire in which the temperatures rise to 40 or 50 degrees Celsius. We want algae that can withstand heat and that also supply interesting products.’
The second PhD candidate will be designing the cultivation system. Wijffels considers floating algae reactors on the salt pans of Bonaire. The island has 4000 hectares (40 km²) of salt pans, which are partially used for the extraction of sea salt. ‘It would be on land, so the wash of the waves is very limited.’ The algae in the floating reactors would have to grow collecting CO2 from air and without cooling. The required electricity would be provided by solar collectors. ‘I want to achieve stand-alone modules that can be upscaled as you go.’
The initiators want to realise laboratory facilities on Bonaire, as well as a test factory for algae cultivation. Furthermore, they want to provide tourists with information on sustainable production of food, animal feed and biofuels. ‘I am aiming at a group of ten people on Bonaire, who would be working on algae cultivation in the tropics’, says Wijffels.
The algae park on Bonaire is an important step for the application of this technology, explains Wijffels, as it is most promising in the tropics. ‘Firstly, the tropics provide more sunlight for the growth of algae, increasing the productivity. Secondly, the stability of the temperature and amount of sunlight in the tropics mean that we have better control over the process in the algae reactors.’
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In the longer term, Wijffels wants to produce kerosene from algae, enabling touristic flights to Bonaire to fly on algae fuel. In the short term, however, the production of algae flour for livestock and aquaculture on the island is more probable.
AlgaePARC in Wageningen, which was initiated in 2010, keeps playing a key part in algae research. Wijffels: ‘To make algae cultivation viable for biofuels, the yield must increase five-fold. Together with the Microbiology group, we are looking into the possibilities of editing the algae strains using mutations and methods such as CRISPR/Cas. This is lab research, which we then test in our test factory. We also want to further test and optimise the upscaling of the systems, which should result in a further two-fold increase of the algae production.’