An algae bioreactor is used for cultivating micro or macroalgae. Algae may be cultivated for the purposes of biomass production (as in a seaweed cultivator), wastewater treatment, CO2 fixation, or aquarium/pond filtration in the form of an algae scrubber.
Algae bioreactors vary widely in design, falling broadly into two categories: open reactors and enclosed reactors. Open reactors are exposed to the atmosphere while enclosed reactors, also commonly called photobioreactors, are isolated to varying extents from the atmosphere.
Specifically, algae bioreactors can be used to produce fuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol, to generate an animal feed, or to reduce pollutants such as NOx and CO2 in flue gases of power plants.
Fundamentally, this kind of bioreactor is based on the photosynthetic reaction which is performed by the chlorophyll-containing algae itself using dissolved carbon dioxide and sunlight energy. The carbon dioxide is dispersed into the reactor fluid to make it accessible for the algae.
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The bioreactor has to be made out of transparent material. The algae are photoautotroph organisms that perform oxygenic photosynthesis.
Some of the first experiments with the aim of cultivating algae were conducted in 1957 by the “Carnegie Institution” in Washington. In these experiments, monocellular Chlorella was cultivated by adding CO2 and some minerals. In the early days, bioreactors were used which were made of glass and later changed to a kind of plastic bag. The goal of all this research has been the cultivation of algae to produce cheap animal feed.
Nowadays 3 basic types of algae photobioreactors have to be differentiated, but the determining factor is the unifying parameter – the available intensity of sunlight energy.
Types of Algae Photobioreactors
3 Basic Types of Algae Photobioreactors are :
- Plate Photobioreactor
- Tubular Photobioreactor
- Bubble Column Photobioreactor
A plate reactor simply consists of vertically arranged or inclined rectangular boxes which are often divided into two parts to affect an agitation of the reactor fluid. Generally, these boxes are arranged into a system by linking them.
Those connections are also used for making the process of filling/emptying, the introduction of gas, and transport of nutritive substances, easier. The introduction of the flue gas mostly occurs at the bottom of the box to ensure that the carbon dioxide has enough time to interact with algae in the reactor fluid.
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A tubular reactor consists of vertical or horizontal arranged tubes, connected together to a pipe system. The algae-suspended fluid is able to circulate in this tubing. The tubes are generally made out of transparent plastics or borosilicate glass and the constant circulation is kept up by a pump at the end of the system.
The introduction of gas takes place at the end/beginning of the tube system. This way of introducing gas causes the problem of deficiency of carbon dioxide, high concentration of oxygen at the end of the unit during the circulation, and bad efficiency.
Bubble Column Photobioreactor
A bubble column photo reactor consists of a vertical arranged cylindrical column, made out of transparent material. The introduction of gas takes place at the bottom of the column and causes a turbulent stream to enable an optimum gas exchange. At present these types of reactors are built with a maximum diameter of 20 cm to 30 cm in order to ensure the required supply of sunlight energy.
The biggest problem with the sunlight-determined construction is the limited size of the diameter. Feuermann et al invented a method to collect sunlight with a cone-shaped collector and transfer it with some fiberglass cables which are adapted to the reactor in order to enable constructions of a column reactor with wider diameters. – on this scale, the energy consumption due to pumps, etc., and the CO2 cost of manufacture may outweigh the CO2 captured by the reactor.
Commercial Uses of Algae Bioreactor
- The cultivation of algae in a photobioreactor creates a narrow range of industrial application possibilities.
- Some power companies already established research facilities with algae photobioreactors to find out how efficient they could be in reducing CO2 emissions, which are contained in flue gas, and how much biomass will be produced.
- Algae biomass has many uses and can be sold to generate additional income. The saved emission volume can bring an income too, by selling emission credits to other power companies.
- The utilization of algae as food is very common in East Asian regions. Most of the species contain only a fraction of usable proteins and carbohydrates and a lot of minerals and trace elements.
- Generally, the consumption of algae should be minimal because of the high iodine content, particularly problematic for those with hyperthyroidism.
- Likewise, many species of diatomaceous algae produce compounds unsafe for humans. The algae, especially some species which contain over 50 percent oil and a lot of carbohydrates, can be used for producing biodiesel and bioethanol by extracting and refining the fractions.
- This point is very interesting because the algae biomass is generated 30 times faster than some agricultural biomass, which is commonly used for producing biodiesel.