SpiralG Spirulina Biorefinery Advances

SpiralG consortium in front of the 0.5 Ha Spirulina production plant

SpiralG consortium in front of the 0.5 Ha Spirulina production plant — from left to right: (back line) Alexis Jacob and Benoit Queguineur (Algaia), Kevin McDonnell and Joseph Swenney (UCD), Davide Pierobon and Matteo Pavan (Milis Energy), Roberto Sandrini, (front line) Guilhem Charandack and Thibaut Michel (Greensea), Maud Benoit (Algaia), Léa Braud (UCD), Monique Ras (BSCM), Jean Paul Cadoret (Greensea), Andrea Moro and Claudio Ledda (Milis Energy), Theodor Fahrendorf (MIAL).

After three years of progress, the SpiralG Consortium has proven the production capability of 10 tons of dry biomass per year with a 10% average content of phycocyanin. An antioxidant bioactivity with potential applications in the animal health sector has also been discovered in the residual fraction (after phycocyanin extraction). Pilot trials and other bio-activity tests are now underway to investigate the extent of other potentially profitable markets.

SpiralG is the first European demonstrator-level project funded by the European H2020 Bio-Based Industry Joint Undertaking (BBI-JU). Their aim is to exploit each component of the spirulina algae biomass, starting with the extraction of the blue pigment: phycocyanin. They received €
5 million over four years.

Phycocyanin: A natural alternative to synthetic food dyes

Besides a high protein content, spirulina is also recognized for its consistent phycocyanin level. Phycocyanin is a light-harvesting blue pigment (protein) involved in photosynthesis, and the concentration can reach a theoretical maximum of 20% of the entire biomass. Phycocyanin, as a water-based spirulina extract, was approved by the FDA in the USA (2019) and also in the EU, Japan and South Korea, as a food-safe blue dye. This regulatory leverage has boosted the production of spirulina and phycocyanin worldwide. Indeed, more than 200 tons of dry phycocyanin are now produced per year, a figure that has doubled in the last 10 years.

The applications of phycocyanin depend on the level of purity of the extract. Four different grades have been determined, from low purity for food applications up to very high purity for analytical applications. Food grade phycocyanin accounts for most of the phycocyanin production with the goal of replacing all synthetic blue dyes in the food industry (mainly used for sweets, chocolate coverages, beverages etc.)

Synthetic dyes used in the food industry have dropped from more than a 100 (in the 1900s) to only seven in todays’ market, due to numerous health disorders related to its consumption (Attention Deficit Disorders, Cancer). The reluctance to consume synthetic dyes has increased the demand for the phycocyanin products. Other potential drivers (demand for natural products, bioactivities, nutritional value…) will probably steepen the curve in the near future.

Developing the economic potential of spirulina

SpiralG is exploring several of the phycocyanin extracts and residual by-products able to create a new value chain. The project targets applications in plants, for example, for new sources of Nitrogen; animal health through oxidation or probiotic management; and human health with a particular focus on cardiovascular applications. Five European partners are collaborating on this innovative project: Milis Energy (Italy), Greensea (France), Algaia (France), MIAL (Germany) and UCD (Ireland).

Additionally, a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is being performed by UCD to determine negative environmental impacts and to suggest alternatives for sustainable practices. The goal is to have a zero-waste system.

Although the production of spirulina biomass only requires water and nutrients (no synthetic chemicals) and the extraction of phycocyanin is solvent-free, other parameters account for environmental and economic impacts. These include heat, water consumption, and CO₂ supply of spirulina ponds as well as transportation of the products.

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