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breen biotec develops algal bioreactors

Algae can produce and supply a broad range of materials, ranging from fuels such as biodiesel to pharmaceutical substances. In addition, production residues can also be used as animal feedstuff, for example. breen biotec, a Stuttgart-based start-up company, plans to develop innovative reactors and methods for the production of algae using an economically and technologically feasible platform.

To our knowledge, this company is no longer in business. The company’s website is offline (as of 29th January 2013).

Dr. Bernd Kaltenhäuser – breen biotec founder and managing director. The company cultures microalgae for the generation of biodiesel and materials. © Kaltenhäuser, breen biotec

breen biotec is an excellent example of the successful transfer of research know-how from academia to industry. The company was founded in 2009 by the physicist Dr. Bernd Kaltenhäuser from the University of Stuttgart, who also brought his experience from industry into the company. Kaltenhäuser did his doctorate on laser optics and nuclear physics at the 5th Institute of Physics at the University of Stuttgart and subsequently spent one and a half years as a consultant in industry before returning to the University of Stuttgart to work on the idea of developing a novel, economical bioreactor for the production of unicellular algae.

Following his return to the 5th Institute of Physics at the University of Stuttgart and supported with funds from the EXIST funding programme run by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi), Kaltenhäuser turned his idea into reality in cooperation with the Institute of Organic Chemistry. His work led to the development of prototypes and to the idea of establishing the company breen biotec. The company is currently being supported in its establishment phase with funds from the “Young Innovators” programme run by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts. In addition to the further development of the prototypes, Kaltenhäuser is focusing his efforts on the acquisition of funds for the first financing round. He has been in contact with a number of investors, but is open to contacts with other potential investors.

Looking for investors for the first financing round

Kaltenhäuser hopes to acquire new funds in order to further develop his plans. He is also planning to establish his first algal production plant in Germany on an area of around 900 sqm, and a second one over eight hectares in Spain. “We hope to be able to set up both plants in around four years’ time, but it goes without saying that we are dependent on financial injections for both projects,” said Kaltenhäuser. Space is not the major problem the start-up company is faced with as Kaltenhäuser is already in contact with energy suppliers in Germany and Spain who have agreed to provide him with the necessary space. The young entrepreneur needs investors who are willing to provide him with the necessary capital for the production of the algal reactors and for the initial phase of reactor operation.

The reactors will be manufactured from a large number of individual modules that will then be connected to each other. The plate-shaped modules are six centimetres thick and can be positioned directly on the ground. This is one of the system’s advantages, as Kaltenhäuser explains: “Currently used algal reactors are just as cheap in terms of production, but they often have the disadvantage that they need to be anchored to scaffolds or greenhouses. This makes it quite expensive to construct them. Therefore, being able to place the modules directly on the ground greatly reduces the construction costs.”

breen biotec’s technical innovations contribute to cost-effectiveness

The unicellular green alga Chlorella vulgaris is easy to culture in algal bioreactors © Kaltenhäuser, breen biotec

Another advantage is the special process used to supply the algae with nutrients and circulate them in the liquid. Permanent circulation is required in order to keep all the algae in a bioreactor continuously supplied with sufficient light and ensure that algae in the lower layers do not suffer from light deficiency. “Numerous systems have been tested for their suitability in circulating the algae. Some systems use bucket wheels and others water or air pressure. However, the biggest problem is finding a way to grow the algae cost efficiently,” said Kaltenhäuser. He also uses air pressure to mix the algae, using a method he has specifically developed in which air pressure is applied to all the elements involved. “Simply applying air pressure to one site of the bioreactor does not effectively counteract the power of the water. The application of air pressure to numerous bioreactor zones enables us to compensate relatively low resistances, and therefore makes the whole system far more efficient,” said Kaltenhäuser.

Kaltenhäuser is also investing money in research and development relating to the inhabitants of the bioreactors, i.e. freshwater Chlorella vulgaris algae. Although these algae grow quite well and are relatively uncomplicated in so far as their culture is concerned, there is still room for optimisation in the bioproduction of the algae. “Our aim is to grow the algae in a way that enables them produce as much fat as possible, as it is the fat that is used for the production of biodiesel,” said Kaltenhäuser explaining that he is trying to vary the amount of nutrients added to the mix in an effort to increase the fat content of the algae. He also hopes to use other algae, including marine species, as production strains in the future. The most important aspect is the price of the algal oil. “Mineral oil companies purchase their oil from companies that are able to produce it cheaply. And since our company is far too small to be able to determine the market price of algal oil, I need to find ways of producing oil more cheaply than traditional oil suppliers,” said Kaltenhäuser.

Environmentally friendly biodiesel production

The algae are grown in bioreactors made of transparent plastic. © Kaltenhäuser, breen biotec

Kaltenhäuser separates the fats from the residual materials and sells both products to esterification companies. “The companies purchase algal oil in the same way as they purchase rapeseed oil, esterify it and sell the resulting product to the mineral oil companies,” said Kaltenhäuser hinting at one of the major advantages of algae-based oil production. The cultivation of algae does not compete with the cultivation of food. Algal reactors can in principle be erected anywhere, it does not need to be on agricultural land. “It is not necessary to cut down primeval forests. And since the use of algal bioreactors enables the environmentally friendly production of oil and other products, the cultivation of algae is not associated with acceptance problems,” said Kaltenhäuser.

Kaltenhäuser is not yet sure what will happen with the waste products arising from the cultivation of algae. “At present, algal waste products can be used for the production of feedstuff for fish and domestic animals, but not in the breeding of cattle or other farm animals. Whether this will be possible in the future depends on future EU legislation,” said Kaltenhäuser who thinks it is entirely possible that operators of esterification plants may become potential animal feed producers as they are already purchasing and processing residuals from rape production.

Another future option is the economically viable production of pharmacological substances in and with algae. However, further research is still necessary and breen biotec hopes to focus on this field in cooperation with academic partners. The company is already working a funding application. “We already have plans to work with the University of Greifswald in a BMBF-funded project to assess the possibility of producing pharmaceutical substances in algae,” said Kaltenhäuser.

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/breen-biotec-develops-algal-bioreactors