The long-held vision of Climate Change Cluster (C3) Director Professor Peter Ralph to address energy and food security through algae-based industries is one step closer with the installation of a new rooftop facility atop the UTS Science Vicki Sara Building. The facility, a 600-litre Varicon PhycoFlow™ algal photobioreactor (PBR), is a first for Australia and is set to revolutionise the NSW bioeconomy.
“This is the missing link that will connect industry to the innovation taking place at institutions such as UTS, allowing us to move from the lab bench to a small industrial scale,” Professor Ralph said.
“It means UTS will be a demonstration site for a broad range of industries. With the installation of this state-of-the-art tubular photobioreactor system, C3 is leading the way for micro-algae production linked to a diverse range of industrial applications, from functional food, dyes and feeds to bioplastics.”
Photobioreactors produce monocultures of marine and freshwater algae in a closed system that automatically controls environmental parameters such as temperature, nutrients, carbon dioxide and pH.
The helical, tubular Varicon photobioreactor system, made from precision-quality Schott glass for better optics and longevity, is designed to circulate the micro-algae around the tubes, exposing cells to sunlight and thus promoting photosynthesis.
The objective is to find the algal strains that, under the right conditions, will optimise the production of algal biomass from which the desired component, usually lipids, can be extracted.
For Varicon Aqua, the UK-based manufacturer of the photobioreactor, the installation is another milestone in bringing their technology to a diverse range of clients and projects.
“We support a host of Universities, like UTS, where the researchers have a requirement for larger scale micro algae production, for example, for biofuel research, genetic studies, pigment production or economic analysis,” Varicon managing director Joe McDonald said.
The bioeconomy will be key to addressing food and energy security by 2050, and algae will be a large part of that.
“The Aqua PhycoFlow offers the research group a great deal of flexibility with regards to the scaling and production of micro-algae. The ability to produce a few kilograms of biomass per week versus a few grams is a significant step forward.
“Of equal value is the flexibility of the system: the PhycoFlow can be configured to produce a diverse range of micro-algae species and therefore opens up the potential to expand the research scope … not just biological, but chemical, engineering, and others.”
It gives C3 the ability to consistently and effectively produce up to 100 litres a day of algae-rich culture medium. The facility’s scalability is something C3’s algal culture custodian, technical officer Lochlan de Beyer, is eagerly anticipating.
“This system has the potential to spark interest in larger scale algal production and is a great showpiece, creating opportunities for student projects and funding from the commercial sector into the future,” he said.
This system complements facilities accessible under the NSW Government supported Deep Green Biotech Hub and will be available to C3 industry partners looking to “validate a particular algal strain and further optimise nutrient regimes”.
Professor Ralph said UTS and C3 are showing strong leadership across a number of research disciplines, but specifically this facility will enable research to widen its reach and engage across many industries.
“The bioeconomy will be key to addressing food and energy security by 2050, and algae will be a large part of the bioeconomy,” he said.