A source of beneficial substances like omega-3 and beta-carotene, microalgae are increasingly used by the food and cosmetics industries. Now an international €5 million research project aims to make cultivating the microorganisms cheaper. ENEA has the task of testing new techniques for the production and extraction of active ingredients.
Foods and cosmetics enriched with antioxidants extracted from microalgae. This is one of the goals of VALUEMAG, the newly launched European project that aims to significantly reduce the costs of microalga production thanks to innovative solutions for the cultivation and extraction of active ingredients. With €5 million of funding from the European Commission, the international research team consisting of 11 partners from nine EU countries will experiment new cultivation methods, like a magnetic procedure that could lower production costs to €0.30 per kg, far below the current €6.00 per kg of traditional systems. “This technology”, underlines Antonio Molino, manager of the project’s activities for ENEA, “immobilises the algal cells on a thin layer to optimise the use of water and nutrients. The result is a very low consumption of these resources, the capture of CO2 from different production processes, and, above all, easy extraction of the high-value biological molecules – which are mostly antioxidants – like omega-3 and carotenoids“. Thanks to a financial contribution of more than €760,000, ENEA will seek to optimise the extraction of bioactive substances from microalgae for subsequent use in food, cosmetics and phytosanitary products and supplements, protecting and preserving the aquaculture cultivations and feed that on average account for over 50% of the total costs of fish farms. “Microalgae are an inexhaustible source of beneficial substances”, says Roberto Balducchi, head of ENEA’s Bioproducts and Bioprocesses Laboratory, “and ENEA will experiment with innovative technologies to limit the degradation of the bioactive molecules during the extraction phase, contributing to optimising quality and productivity of the cultivations”. Involved in the European project will be the ENEA Portici Research Centre, setting up the hi-tech production process and microalga chemical analysis methods, while the Centres of Trisaia (Matera) and Casaccia (Rome) will study techniques for extracting substances of high added value and their potential applications.
The global market for microalga products has an annual production of about 24 million tonnes of plant microorganisms (FAO data) with a total business value of $6.4 billion and a potential to expand to more than $250 billion thanks to the development of bio-refining technologies.Currently the industry is dominated by China and Indonesia with over 80% of world microalga production, while European industry accounts for just 5%.
“With the results we achieve”, concludes Balducchi, “we will contribute to further developing new production chains in Europe for the use of these natural resources in line with the principles of environmental, economic and social sustainability of the bioeconomy“. Benefiting from the project’s results will be the whole European aquaculture sector in general, for which the Commission forecasts 23,000 new jobs by 2030, in addition to the current 150,000.
 The project “Valuable Products from Algae Using New Magnetic Cultivation and Extraction Techniques” is funded under the EU’s BioBased Industries Programme in the Marine Biorefinery Topic.
 “Microalgae-based products for the food and feed sector: an outlook for Europe” (JRC, 2014 http://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC85709/final%20version%20online%20ipts%20jrc%2085709.pdf)
 The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (FAO, 2014 http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3720e.pdf )