Wageningen opens expansion of microalgae farm: AlgaePARC 2.0

Published on
March 5, 2024

On Tuesday 5 March, Wageningen University & Research opened AlgaePARC 2.0, an expansion of the existing microalgae farm on the Wageningen campus. Serving as a pilot plant, it is where researchers and small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) develop and test technologies for the growth and biorefining of microalgae. That way, they aim to accelerate innovations. Tamara van Rozen, Director of Business Operations of the Agrotechnology & Food Sciences Group, officially opened the facility at 2:00 PM, in the presence of nearly 150 guests.

The new facility includes additional tubular systems for microalgae cultivation, new screening systems for faster selection of algae strains, and a range of novel biorefinery equipment for researchers to purify bioproducts from algae. This effectively doubles the capacity of the pilot plant. “We make our technology available to start-ups and other small companies to test their ideas without having to make large investments,” says Maria Barbosa, Professor of Bioprocess Engineering. AlgaePARC has been sharing its facilities since 2016, but could not keep up with the demand. AlgaePARC 2.0 aims to meet this growing demand.

Microalgae for food products

There is a clear difference in the application of microalgae ten years ago and now. While researchers and small companies used to focus on biofuel production, the focus is now shifting towards food applications. Algae produce palm oil substitutes and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and serve as an animal-free protein source. The enhanced capabilities of AlgaePARC should lower the threshold of researching this potential. It is now possible to not only grow algae, but also to harvest them on-site and purify the desired product. That is quite unique as most pilots either offer opportunities for algae growth or for extracting desired products such as oil from the algae. “At AlgaePARC companies can now start with a tube of algae and leave with their product,” Barbosa explains.

Moreover, the microalgae farm in Wageningen is one of the few plants with a license to grow genetically modified algae on pilot scale. The only other algae farm with such a permit in Europe is located in Portugal. With minor adjustments to the DNA, scientists can modify the metabolism of the algae, for example to produce more oil or protein.

Stepping stone for start-ups

Recently, the start-up ReCarbn relocated from Twente to Wageningen to have easier access to the facilities of AlgaePARC. The start-up is investigating a technology called direct air capture, which captures CO2 directly from the air and then utilises it on-site, for example, to 'feed' algae. Sophia Hummelman, co-founder of ReCarbn, explains: "We want to better understand if this technology can be a good application for the algae. We test, among other things, how algae respond to the flow of CO2 that we administer and the robustness of the technology under changing weather conditions and continuous operation.” AlgaePARC in Wageningen offers an optimal research environment for this start-up. "With research in the field of algae, Wageningen is at the forefront on a global scale," says Hummelman. "For us, AlgaePARC is therefore the ideal testing location. Collaborating with AlgaePARC and Wageningen University & Research serves as a catalyst for advancing our technology, presenting us with novel opportunities in its ongoing development."

The collaboration between ReCarbn and Wageningen is made possible in part by the 4TU/TNO collaborative initiative Thematic Technology Transfer Circular Technology (TTT-CT). Programme Director Maurits Burgering of TTT-CT explains, "An earlier pilot conducted in WUR's greenhouses left us wanting more, which is why we are now transitioning to the updated AlgaePARC 2.0."

The expansion of the algae farm was made possible by a €1.5 million grant from OP East, part of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). This is a joint subsidy program of the provinces of Overijssel and Gelderland aimed at structurally strengthening the economy. AlgaePARC also receives support from the Bioprocess Engineering (BPE) chair group and Shared Research Facilities (SRF) within WUR.