Comprehensive sustainability assessment of two algae biorefinery concepts: final reports on EU projects now available
Many innovations regarding the cultivation and conversion of algae make new usage concepts possible. Many approaches currently focus on the production of high-value algae components for use in products including nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals.
The sustainability of two of these concepts was recently investigated in two EU-funded research projects with a total budget of €10 million. In the D-Factory project, the well-established industrial cultivation of the microalga Dunaliella salina was optimised, resulting in an expansion of the product range from one to nine items. The PUFAChain project identified new strains of algae for the production of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and established and optimised their cultivation and processing.
The integrated life cycle sustainability assessments which took account of all product life cycles from “cradle-to-grave”, included life cycle assessments, assessments of local environmental impact, life cycle costing, and social life cycle assessments. These were supplemented by analyses of potential risks with regard to technology, market, regulation and policy. This resulted amongst others in the following findings for a sustainable design of algae biorefinery concepts:
All current algae cultivation and processing methods require high inputs. However, at the current state of development, environmental burdens can be reduced by up to 90%. A comprehensive sustainability assessment can help to realise this potential.
Sustainability is dependent on the use of:
CO2 from flue gas (without extending the usage duration, e.g. of fossil fuel power stations)
As much own renewable energy as possible (particularly solar)
Land which is not suitable for agricultural use
Sites with no water scarcity
Feed production from by-products can greatly reduce ecological and social burdens through avoiding land use, and can even generate some additional profits.
Direct competition with products manufactured by using fermentation should be avoided, as this can pose a major challenge for algae-based processes.
Regulatory boundary conditions are important: Small and medium-sized enterprises should receive support with approval procedures as required, and long-term policy strategies must take account of potential competition with solar energy for land.
The cultivation and use of algae has great potential to become an important component of the bioeconomy if the current dynamic technological development continues, provided that sustainability issues are dealt with.
The complete final reports of the environmental and sustainability assessments can be downloaded here: