Microalgae: A solar power plant producing fuel and nutraceuticals
Peer Schenk, University of Queensland
Approx. 80% of current energy production is fossil fuel-derived contributing to dangerous climate change and ocean acidification. Even when most cars are powered by electricity, fuel will still be required for large trucks, ships and planes. Yet most renewable energy sources only produce electricity and not fuel. Therefore biofuels have been proposed to fill this demand, but first generation biofuels, such as corn or palm oil, directly compete with food production or rainforest. Microalgae are highly efficient producers of biomass for food, animal feed or biofuels. Importantly, they can be farmed at large-scale without competing for arable land or biodiverse landscapes and are able to use polluted water, brackish or seawater. However, current costs of algal biomass production is relatively high, mainly because of expensive harvesting and extraction procedures. We have developed low-cost cultivation, harvesting and product extraction technologies to sustainably produce biodiesel, protein-rich animal feed and nutraceuticals. We work closely with collaborators at the Technical University in Munich (TUM) to profile valuable compounds, such as vitamins, carbohydrates and omega-3 fatty acids from microalgae to develop new products for human health.
Using next generation sequencing and chemical engineering, we have improved local microalgal strains, and applied low-cost technologies for every step of algae farming, harvesting and processing. A 250,000 L Algae Energy Farm has been constructed to provide a cost- & energy-effective microalgal biomass production module. This demonstration algae farm is independent of external electricity and fully utilises microalgae’s potential as a zero-waste biorefinery, producing not only bioenergy, but also cattle feed supplement for Northern Australia as well as omega-3 fatty acids, carotenoids and phytosterols for human consumption. Current research focuses on further cost reductions and on combining biodiesel from microalgae with biogas production that will allow recycling of fertiliser and CO2 to provide fully sustainable energy farms. Our colleagues at TUM have developed the Algentechnikum, a state-of-the-art facility to simulate climates for large-scale algae cultivation. This has led to a fruitful collaboration between Germany and Australia with prolific PhD and Masters student exchanges.
Peer Schenk graduated from Georg August University in Göttingen and completed his PhD at the Max-Planck Institute for Plant Breeding in Cologne. He is a Professor at the University of Queensland, School of Agriculture and Food Sciences where he heads the Plant-Microbe Interactions Laboratory and the Algae Biotechnology Laboratory. Peer is interested in game-changing solutions from Science and Technology to address Food and Energy Security (www.schenklab.com). His previous work in Plant Biotechnology includes the development of new disease resistant plants and the use of algae for food, feed and biofuel, leading to over 180 well-cited papers and 7 patents. He developed new commercial crop cultivars grown in Australia, India and Argentina, constructed the Algae Energy Farm at Pinjarra Hills and founded start-up companies Nexgen Plants Pty Ltd and Qponics Pty Ltd.