An algae bioreactor or photobioreactor is used for cultivating algae on purpose to fix CO2 or produce biomass. Specifically, algae bioreactors can be used to produce fuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol, to generate animal feed, or to reduce pollutants such as NOx and CO2 in flue gases of power plants. Fundamentally, this kind of bioreactor is based on the photosynthetic reaction which is performed by the chlorophyll-containing algae itself using dissolved carbon dioxide and sunlight energy. The carbon dioxide is dispersed into the reactor fluid to make it accessible for the algae. The bioreactor has to be made out of transparent material.
The algae are photoautotroph organisms which perform oxygenetic photosynthesis.
The equation for photosynthesis:
Some of the first experiments with the aim of cultivating algae were conducted in 1957 by the "Carnegie Institution" in Washington. In these experiments, the monocellular Chlorella were cultivated by adding CO2 and some minerals. In the early days, bioreactors were used which were made of glass and later changed to a kind of plastic bag. The goal of all this research has been the cultivation of algae to produce a cheap animal feed.
Frequently used photo reactor types
Nowadays 3 basic types of algae photobioreactors have to be differentiated, but the determining factor is the unifying parameter – the available intensity of sunlight energy.
A plate reactor simply consists of vertically arranged or inclined rectangular boxes which are often divided in two parts to effect an agitation of the reactor fluid. Generally these boxes are arranged to a system by linking them. Those connections are also used for making the process of filling/emptying, introduction of gas and transport of nutritive substances, easier. The introduction of the flue gas mostly occurs at the bottom of the box to ensure that the carbon dioxide has enough time to interact with algae in the reactor fluid.
A tubular reactor consists of vertical or horizontal arranged tubes, connected together to a pipe system. The algae-suspended fluid is able to circulate in this tubing. The tubes are generally made out of transparent plastics or borosilicate glass and the constant circulation is kept up by a pump at the end of the system. The introduction of gas takes place at the end/beginning of the tube system. This way of introducing gas causes the problem of deficiency of carbon dioxide, high concentration of oxygen at the end of the unit during the circulation, and bad efficiency.
Bubble column photobioreactor
A bubble column photo reactor consists of vertical arranged cylindrical column, made out of transparent material. The introduction of gas takes place at the bottom of the column and causes a turbulent stream to enable an optimum gas exchange. At present these types of reactors are built with a maximum diameter of 20 cm to 30 cm in order to ensure the required supply of sunlight energy. This type allows for a reduction of the harmful shear forces.[clarification needed (What forces?)]
The biggest problem with the sunlight determined construction is the limited size of the diameter. Feuermann et al.[who?] invented a method to collect sunlight with a cone shaped collector and transfer it with some fiberglass cables which are adapted to the reactor in order to enable constructions of a column reactor with wider diameters. - on this scale the energy consumption due to pumps etc. and the CO2 cost of manufacture may outweigh the CO2 captured by the reactor.
The cultivation of algae in a photobioreactor creates a narrow range of industrial application possibilities. Some power companies already established research facilities with algae photobioreactors to find out how efficient they could be in reducing CO2 emissions, which are contained in flue gas, and how much biomass will be produced. Algae biomass has many uses and can be sold to generate additional income. The saved emission volume can bring an income too, by selling emission credits to other power companies.
The utilisation of algae as food is very common in East Asian regions. Most of the species contain only a fraction of usable proteins and carbohydrates, and a lot of minerals and trace elements. Generally, the consumption of algae should be minimal because of the high iodine content. For example, if someone has hyperthyroidism it could be very dangerous for their health. Likewise, many species of diatomaceous algae produce compounds unsafe for humans.
The algae, especially some species which contain over 50 percent oil and a lot of carbohydrates, can be used for producing biodiesel and bioethanol by extracting and refining the fractions. This point is very interesting, because the algae biomass is generated 30 times faster than some agricultural biomass, which is commonly used for producing biodiesel.
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- Chisti, Y. (2007) Biodiesel from microalgae. Biotechnology Advances 25, 294-306