Znak Politechniki Warszawskiej

Microalgae from the WUT to revolutionize industry?

phot. BPI 

Students from the Chemical and Process Engineering Scientific Club at the Warsaw University of Technology have constructed an instrument to test the pressure method for harvesting cultured microalgae for industrial applications. Currently, they are commencing installation tests. “We can likely monetize this, as the project leverages many technologies that can be patented,” Michał Wojtalik, the project coordinator, says.

So what are algae, exactly? Algae are a group of unicellular organisms with high biodiversity. What they have in common is the lack of specialised tissue, and in most cases also autotrophy and water habitat. Algae contain a large number of nutrients, which makes them the focus of continuous research for new applications. “We want to use them primarily to process carbon dioxide separated from other exhaust gases, but also to produce biomass and fatty acids used to manufacture biodiesel fuels,” Wojtalik explains.

But these are not the only applications of algae. The organisms can also be used to produce cosmetics and medicines.

A chance for commercial success

The idea to cultivate and then research algae arose two years ago while members of the Chemical and Process Engineering Scientific Club were undergoing an internship at the Total company. “Together with another student, I conducted there a presentation on minimum biocomponent content in fuels,” Wojtalik relates. The limits have been set by the European Union, and the students jumped at the chance. Implementation of EU regulations means that demand for biofuels will steadily increase. Eventually, they will be in short supply. The young researchers thus came up with a technology to solve this problem.

The result is an installation that allows to cultivate microalgae under pressures up to 10 bar and monitor the culture development (temperature, pressure, light exposure, pH parameters). It is also possible to collect samples for periodic testing of microorganism biomass concentration. The instrument is mobile, using its own light and gas sources.

The students are reluctant to reveal further details. “We can only say that the solution is highly innovative,” Wojtalik stresses. “We saw an opportunity to utilise what oil processing plants now consider waste,” he adds.

Incredible algae

It should be noted that algae cultivated by the Warsaw University of Technology students are quite peculiar. “We have selected a special strain isolated in Halle, Germany,” the project coordinator narrates. “We must multiply them in order to graft them into bioreactors.

Importantly, the algae we use do not stick to sides of vessels and dishes in which they are placed, which makes our processes much easier.”

The power of interdisciplinarity

Members of the Chemical and Process Engineering Scientific Club know that they are not the only ones who work on obtaining biofuels and biocomponents from algae. Corporations are hot on their heels. Michał Wojtalik stresses, however, that the main advantage of their team is its highly interdisciplinary character. Usually, this topic is researched by biotechnologists alone. The WUT group includes people with knowledge on both process technologies and cell cultures. The group of young researches belonging to the Scientific Club (in addition to Michał Wojtalik, members include Paweł Antkowiak, Mateusz Bartczak, Nina Borzęcka, Szymon Rowiński, Kacper Siwek, Jan Bartha, Robert Bitner, Piotr Cendrowski, Wiktor Dobryniewski, Karina Flasińska, Radosław Krzosa, Aleksandra Olszewska, Izabela Szczur) is mentored by biotechnologist Rafał Podgórski, a doctoral student at the Department of Biotechnology and Bioprocess Engineering, Faculty of Chemical and Process Engineering of the WUT. It is in conditions like this, where different disciplines and specialisation areas collide, that innovations are born.

“We will attempt to implement our project at a larger scale,” Michał Wojtalik announces. “Our wish is to partner with an energy concern and upscale our installation to a quarter-technical prototype to provide an ultimate proof of concept, but we can start working on this only when the initial results of our research are available.”

 

Agnieszka Kapela

Promotion and Information Office