Tomorrow’s green raw material
They are one of the oldest forms of life on earth and shine with various talents: microalgae. The green unicellular organisms are rich in valuable ingredients and, due to their versatile applicability, are considered a beacon of hope among renewable raw materials.
Orri Björnsson, CEO of the Icelandic company Algalif, about the future of algae production and his experience with glass systems for cultivation.
Mr. Björnsson, how does one get the idea to cultivate algae, and in Iceland of all places?
Algae are a fascinating species. They are a renewable source of proteins and require much less energy than other plants. They, therefore, also have a much lower environmental impact. And, they are incredibly versatile: they can be used as food supplements, or in the cosmetics sector, as food in general, and animal feed, biofuel or fertilizers, and even as substances for medicines. Iceland is an excellent place for indoor algae cultivation. We have an abundance of pure cold water, a cool climate, and renewable geothermal energy.
Which function does glass have in your production?
Glass plays a crucial role. Algae need carbon dioxide, nutrients and plenty of light to grow. They find ideal conditions in photobioreactors. Four years ago, we decided that our photobioreactors should consist of DURAN® glass tubing from SCHOTT. I must say our experience has been very positive. They allow precisely the light to reach the algae that we need for optimal growth. Glass also has a long lifespan. The tubes are more stable and more comfortable to clean than plastic alternatives. All in all, we can rely on longer lifetimes and reduce the costs of producing microalgae. Of course, we also experimented with glass from other manufacturers, for example, from the Far East. However, we had less positive experiences.
What was the reason for your dissatisfaction?
The glass tubes did not meet our quality standards. Not only was their assembly more complicated, but we also had numerous cases of cracks and broken glass. If breakage happens too often, this naturally creates unnecessary hurdles for us as a company. If one of the glass tubes fails, we lose algae and valuable working time. Repairing such damage can easily take three to four employees half a day. As a company of 35 people, we must always keep an eye on efficiency. As a comparison: In the case of DURAN® glass tubing, only one of the 32,000 tubes has broken in the last two years – and this had nothing to do with the glass itself.
Are there any specific technical tricks for cultivating algae in Iceland?
No, there is no secret formula. And if there was, I would, of course, not tell you. But seriously: Of course, we have our tricks. At the same time, regular exchange with industry experts is essential for us. We are transparent about our production process and are always happy to present our way of working to a professional audience. I think we can show that you can grow Algae with great success up here in the north and follow clear sustainability principles with the right expertise.
How do you assess the development of the algae market in the future?
We recognize a growing demand. Algae are becoming increasingly popular because they are more sustainable than many conventional crops. Our production is currently running at full capacity. We are also continuously working on improving our algae species. If the market continues as it is, we will even consider expanding. If possible, we would like to use DURAN® glass tubes again. All the cooperation and advice we have received so far has been straightforward and efficient. In short, we know all about algae cultivation, and SCHOTT knows what is possible with glass.
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