Turning Waste Water Algae into Specialty Chemicals

Gen3Bio, a startup in Indiana, USA, have developed a unique way to transform algae used to purify municipal wastewater into specialty bio-based chemicals such as biofuels or bio-plastics to reduce the risk of toxic algae blooms. Algae from wastewater treatment facilities are typically disposed of in a landfill, which can be costly and environmentally challenging.

“There is a better way to repurpose algae. We use our patented enzyme technology to break open the algae and take out the sugars, fats, and proteins, and convert those into specialty chemicals,” said Kelvin Okamoto, founder, and chief executive officer of Gen3Bio. “It’s a way to keep the carbon cycle going by renewing the use of the algae into useful and safe products.” He added.

The critical technology is performed on 5 percent algae in warm water, which eliminates the need for dewatering required by many other processes. Additionally, the process has been demonstrated to work on several strains of microalgae to recover more than 90 percent of free sugars and proteins within the cells. The process can be run in readily available equipment and takes a total of two hours to complete.

The enzymes break down the carbohydrates into individual sugar components, mostly glucose with some mannose in most cases. The insoluble broken cell walls, fats, and proteins are then filtered out from the sugars. The sugars are left in the filtrate along with a small percentage of proteins. This filtrate then can go directly to fermentation to further convert the sugars. The precipitate can be further separated into proteins, fats, and broken cell walls, as needed.

Fermentation of the sugars can lead to any fermentation byproduct, including succinic acid, lactic acid, and bio-ethanol. Succinic acid and lactic acid can be considered basic building blocks to produce numerous other commercially important specialty chemicals. Succinic acid and lactic acid can also be used to produce bioplastics. The lipids can be easily converted to bio-diesel and the proteins can be hydrolyzed to obtain the basic amino acids.