SCHOTT solutions no. 1/2014 > Technical Tubing

Building on more than 30 years of experience, IGV offers a portfolio of photobioreactors up to 160,000 liters in total volume. Photo: IGV Biotech

The Algae Turbo

SCHOTT and its partners are conducting research aimed at further developing photobioreactors. With its oval CONTURAX® glass tubes, the company supplies components for even more effective industrial cultivation of algae.

Christine Fuhr

These green single cell organisms we call micro algae are simply indispensable as the main source of food for many aquatic animals. They can be a real nuisance in an aquarium. However, they can be considered an interesting future market for industry. There are many thousands of species of algae all over the world. Several hundred of them are now being cultivated for research or commercial purposes. Many types of algae are phototropic, which means they use light as their main source of energy and convert carbon dioxide into valuable biomass through photosynthesis – five times more efficiently than land plants. Rich in valuable ingredients such as proteins, lipids, pigments, antioxidants and acids, they have very versatile uses, from food supplements to animal feed, biofuels, fertilizers, and ingredients for medications and cosmetics.

In the meantime, the market volume of algae production has surpassed the one billion U.S. dollar threshold – and continues to grow fast. The current challenge is to improve the production technology in order to cultivate algae more effectively from an economic point of view.
Micro algae: haematococcus pluvialis. Photo: IGV Biotech

Bioreactors offer ideal conditions

Growing algae in photobioreactors is an excellent way to produce them. These devices consist of several rows of interconnected glass tubes. They can be between 100 meters and several kilometers in total length and hold a volume of less than 100 or even several thousand gallons. Optimal growth conditions can be achieved in closed systems rather than in open ponds. The risk of contamination is low and the pH value, nutrient concentration and oxygen levels can be controlled. The special geometry of the tubular fence systems allows the algae to be supplied with light, whether natural or artificial, and for the algae themselves to cast as little shade as possible.

Thanks to its tubular components made of high-quality DURAN® borosilicate glass and its expertise in the area of photobioreactors, SCHOTT is an important partner to the algae industry. The company produces special glass tubing in various wall thicknesses, diameters and variable lengths from 1.4 to 10 meters. SCHOTT also offers matching glass bends and special connectors. The patented tube couplings were developed together with Jäger Gummi und Kunststoff GmbH from Hanover, Germany. The tube connectors are pressure resistant up to 3 bars, can be installed and disassembled easily, and they are reusable. In recent years, SCHOTT has supplied products for projects all over the world. In France, for example, its customer Microphyt already operates photobioreactors that feature glass tubes from SCHOTT. Others are either in the pipeline or already under construction. Varicon Aqua Solutions Ltd. from the United Kingdom has a lot of experience with their patented BioFence™ systems with the more than 100 pilot and commercial systems they are operating worldwide. Over the preceding year, they have been advising their customers to retrofit with glass, due to the lifecycle and cleaning advantages compared to polymer tubes, which they used so far. They recently installed two new projects with glass tubing from SCHOTT in Iceland and Sweden. Algae Enviro-Engineering (AEE), a Singapore-based green biological solution provider and an algae producer, also operates photobioreactors that use DURAN® glass tubing and SCHOTT connectors. SCHOTT has been working closely with IGV GmbH in Nuthetal, Germany, since the 1990s and has gained a significant amount of knowledge from this partnership. The companies have constantly given each other ”incentives to pursue further developments and make improvements to the tube geometry and processing,” explains Dr. Peter Waldeck, Head of IGV Biotech.
CONTURAX® oval glass tubes from SCHOTT allow algae to grow more efficiently. Photo: SCHOTT/M. Jahrreiss
CONTURAX® oval tubes are the latest development. ”The oval shape allows the light that the algae require for photosynthesis to be utilized better. This significantly increases the efficiency of our customers’ photobioreactors,” explains Dr. Nikolaos Katsikis,
Director of Business Development at SCHOTT Tubing. Another plus: The oval tubes have round ends so that they can be arranged in rows by using standard couplings. ”SCHOTT is the world's only manufacturer that can offer oval tubes with round ends for this application,” he adds.

Innovative glass tubing in test mode

To help advance the production technology with the concentrated expertise from the worlds of science and industry, SCHOTT has started a research project in the United States together with the algae technology company Heliae and Arizona State University (ASU). With ASU’s test bed facility, it is now possible to directly compare tube-type reactors with other systems such as flat panel or raceway ponds even at the same location. Furthermore, new products from SCHOTT such as the new oval tubing are being evaluated by an objective academic partner. The Helix™ reactor from Heliae that is used in this research project has particularly thin and highly transparent glass tubing and is ideal for cultivating different strains of algae. The tubes used at the beginning of the project will be replaced later on by the new CONTURAX® oval tubing. Comparative data on growth rates and final concentrations from this project can now be published contrary to non-public customer data, and will then show how the new geometry affects the economics of algae production.

”The interactions between Heliae’s and SCHOTT’s research and development teams over the years have helped both companies develop world-class technology that will truly enable this industry,” said Dan Simon, Heliae’s President and CEO during the start-up of the test bed facility in Arizona. SCHOTT’s commitment to more efficient algae cultivation has sparked a great deal of interest: SCHOTT experts are presenting papers at international conferences such as the 2014 Alg‘n’Chem conference in Montpellier (France) and the Algae Biomass Summit (USA). Dr. Katsikis states, ”This opportunity to present our capabilities to scientists and decision makers in research and industry is an ideal forum for us as a supplier.” Competition for market share has only just begun – a good start for the company to be at the cutting-edge as an important supplier in the future. <

Feedback from a few customers and partners: Glass offers many advantages