by David Wichner
AlgaeCell Inc., of Tucson, AZ has licensed technology for an algae cultivation photobioreactor invented by University of Arizona (UA) Professor Joel Cuello. The system is capable of producing industrial-scale microalgae to be used in pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements and vaccines.
The photobioreactor uses a special design to make it less expensive and more efficient than similar devices, according to Dr. Cuello, a professor of biosystems engineering in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. AlgaeCell’s Air Accordion Photobioreactor uses a system of inexpensive polyethylene bags arranged in a zig-zag fashion to maximize mixing of air and media needed for optimal algae growth.
“Conventional bioreactors use long tubes, pipes or columns, or sometimes panels made of glass or polycarbonate, which are typically expensive to manufacture and often fail to maintain desired mixing characteristics when scaled for industrial production,” Dr. Cuello said. “The Air Accordion is different because rather than a single-panel reactor, it is several panels interconnected in a zig-zag pattern. The way it moves as you’re bubbling up (air) from the column, it follows the zig-zag and that gives you longer path lengths and better mixing.”
The system is easy to scale up, and since it’s a closed system sealed from environmental contaminants, it is perfect for growing food- and pharmaceutical-grade products, said Dr. Cuello, who is serving as an advisor to AlgaeCell and conducting company-funded research at UA.
The company initially plans to produce spirulina and other algae that produce two common types of omega-3 fatty acids. “There’s a huge global demand for omega-3 fatty acids for pharmaceuticals,” he said. Fish are able to accumulate these fatty acids by eating algae, so why not go straight to the source?”
Tech Launch Arizona, the UA’s technology commercialization arm, licensed the Air Accordion and five other bioreactor designs developed by Dr. Cuello’s Biosystems Engineering group to AlgaeCell in September 2020.
AlgaeCell was founded in March, 2021 by CEO Hamed Ismail, a Norway-based investor and entrepreneur who worked for a Norwegian company that originally licensed the UA photobioreactor in 2015. When that company failed to move the technology forward, Mr. Ismail launched AlgaeCell and negotiated a new licensing agreement with UA.
Mr. Ismail said the Air Accordion bioreactor has the potential to disrupt the global nutraceutical market, which was worth $412 billion in 2020 and is projected to grow at more than 8% annually through 2027. The algae product market alone is expected to reach $44 billion by 2023. “I believe there’s nothing comparable to it on the market — it’s radically different thinking,” he said of the Air Accordion Photobioreactor.
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