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The Story of TransAlgae

The project has successfully transferred innovative solutions for the production of micro and macroalgae as a source of bioenergy and high-value products. The research results have been transferred directly to companies in a continuous dialogue.

To grow a network
Three and a half years ago, when we started the TransAlgae project we had isolated researchers, entrepreneurs cultivating and harvesting algae up here at our latitude. In Finland, knowledge about algae was limited, but this project has increased the interest in algae significantly and important contacts with industry have been established.

Today, we have a tight network of committed growers and researchers from Finland, Sweden and Norway, and the network that builds the foundation for commercialization has grown throughout the project period.

In order to expand the network and engage the industrial sector, communication has worked to disseminate knowledge that can be understood by non-researchers. This work has been a cross-border collaboration among all partners and resulted in this webpage where you can find a video animation, a film, infosheets and newsletters. Experimental details can be found in the scientific publications.

To show results
The conclusion is that we could develop cost-efficient and energy-efficient cultivation systems. Our results show that algae can produce large amounts of biomass when grown in wastewater and flue gases. We have also shown that algae can be a good source of biofuels, such as biogas, especially macroalgae.

To grow Scandinavian algae
Microalgae have been grown by researchers in Umeå at Umeå Energi and Vakin, by an entrepreneur in Härnösand (Nattviken) and in Vaasa Finland. In Norway, researchers and an entrepreneur (Arctic Seaweed) have grown macroalgae (seaweed) in the laboratory and at pilot scale; they have even harvested macroalgae from the sea. Three completely different cultivation methods have been developed and improved.

To harvest and test algae
The next step has been to develop and adapt cost-effective methods for harvesting algae. Four different methods have been tested and a completely new method has been developed in order to characterize the valuable algae biomass. Today we have a very good picture of the chemical and biochemical (lipids, carbohydrates and proteins) content of both microalgae grown in municipal wastewater and macroalgae grown in the sea. Microalgae grown in municipal wastewater, with and without flue gases, have a heavy metal content that is below threshold values for use as biofertilizers. The test methods have been greatly developed and improved; this is an important result of this project.

To transform algae
The transformation of algae biomass has been done in different ways for different types of algae. When the project began, for example, there was no knowledge of how microalgae grown on our latitudes have the properties needed for biogas production. These results now also benefit a biogas producer in Finland and show that algae and especially macroalgae can be a good biomass for biogas. Our results show, contrary to what the literature indicates, that pre-treatment of microalgae biomass does not increase biogas production. Microalgae that are thermally (heat) treated can generate biochar of medium-high heating value. We have also isolated and identified three local algae strains that can produce pigments of high value.

To develop sustainable business models
An important part of the project has been the investigation of the benefit that algae sector has for the society (system analysis). Students and companies have worked on designing sustainable business models and they have investigated the role of algae in the circular economy. An important insight is that new economic models are needed, and new business models need to be developed in order to be able to calculate the profitability of the future circular biobased economy, which includes algae.

To collaborate with companies
Having small companies as partners in our project has been very rewarding. The exchange of experience between researchers and entrepreneurs has been pivotal for the overall project result; however, we could also observe that this form of financing is not optimal for small companies. Crucial have also been the active participation of medium-sized companies that have helped and supported the pilot plants operation with the supply of flue gases and wastewater in Sweden. In Finland, companies have also contributed with wastewater, digestate and inoculum for biogas production. It has also been interesting to follow the commercialization of macroalgae in Norway. Without the industrial sector commitment, this project would not have been feasible.

To transfer knowledge
Through external communication, we have reached a variety of target groups in the society with the aim of spreading interest and knowledge about algae in order to lay the groundwork for the commercialization of new products from algae. An unexpected contact is an iron foundry that would like to use algae to become carbon dioxide negative.

 To develop something new
New commercial products that have been developed are the system for growing and regulating the cultivation of microalgae (Nattviken Invest, Härnösand, Sweden) and macroalgae food (Arctic Seaweed, Bodö, Norway).

The company Nattviken has developed a completely new method based on artificial intelligence to identify automatically microalgae. This software is based on machine learning and it is able to recognize any feature from an image that the human sight could do. This method can also be used for other microorganisms.

To contribute to the global goals
TransAlgae has contributed to sustainable development focusing on a fossil-free future. This project has shown clear benefits for the environment and climate, as algae recycles nutrients from wastewater and flue gases together with the production of biomass for valuable products and biofuels. Gender equality, equal rights and non-discrimination) have been a common thread in internal and external work.

To brag a little
We are very proud that our TransAlgae project was the winner of the Arctic Award 2017 that included participants from four different Interreg programmes.

December 2019