A rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, proteins, enzymes, vitamins, minerals and trace elements, it’s not surprising that algae has become a highly sought after raw material for numerous products in the pharma, chemical and food sectors. For more than 50 years, GEA has accompanied start-ups and algae producers with R&D support and high-quality and processing technologies that meet strict industry standards.

A recent example of growing consumer demand for healthy, plant-based and ecologically sustainable products is the Brittany-based French company that first approached GEA nearly six years ago when it was a fledgling start-up in the algae industry. The partnership began with a series of on-site test sessions, which quickly convinced the founders that GEA had the best know-how and most advanced technology for their process needs. Together with the customer, GEA developed a tailor-made separation process for producing high-quality biomass from microalgae on an industrial scale, primarily for use in the pet food and food processing industries.

Heterotrophic algae cultivation increasingly favored

The challenge with this method is the somewhat complex environment in which the algae are cultivated or fed on sugar and in the absence of light. The heterotrophic cultivation method is popular with algae producers given several advantages: For example, the algae can be harvested much sooner, which considerably reduces production times. The process itself is more stable, as susceptibility to contamination is considerably reduced; and producers achieve much higher yields. The heterotrophic process, however, requires state-of-the-art technology and detailed process knowledge if these advantages are to be realized.

Following detailed discussions with GEA experts, the French start-up selected one of GEA’s smaller nozzle separators in 2014 for  concentrating their cultivated microalgae. This solution allows shear-sensitive algae cells to be processed gently, while the special separator nozzle enables a very homogeneous algae concentrate with maximum dry substance and yield. The separator’s CIP capability guarantees quick and effective cleaning for maximum product safety and maximum machine availability.

Eventually, quick growing demand for their algae products meant investing in an even larger separator just a year later. By 2019, the one-time start-up had become a  specialist in fermentation processes, necessitating another separator upgrade, this time one with significantly higher capacity. 

Partnering to meet growing global demand for algae products

For start-ups and businesses in the algae industry, funding is key to moving from the laboratory to the pilot phase. Investors generally want some evidence that demonstrates that a given technology works on a small scale or can be scaled up to produce several tons of algal biomass or gallons of algal oil before committing funds. Key factors in successfully scaling up algae production and processing are reducing energy consumption and operating costs.

”Being able to partner customers early on is critical when it comes to developing algae harvesting processes, particularly given the demands to drive down production and per unit costs," says Alexander Piek, Application Manager Separation at GEA Renewables. ”Our cooperation with both growing start-ups and large producers shows that with our more 50 years of experience and innovative products for the algae industry, we’re able to tailor solutions to meet each customer’s need, helpings ensure their long-term success.“

Choosing the right GEA solution for every job in the algae industry

With the GEA separator, shear-sensitive algae cells can be processed gently.
With the GEA separator, shear-sensitive algae cells can be processed gently. The special nozzle in the separator enables a very homogeneous algae concentrate to be obtained with maximum dry substance and yield.

GEA CIP-capable separators and decanters for separating liquid from algae biomass offer unique advantages for diverse algae types and cultivation conditions. Capacity, product viscosity, solids content and pH value in the fermentation broth and cell structure are used to define the right solution. In applications where greater concentration or dewatering is required, a decanter further reduces the liquid content of the algae biomass. A decanter can also sort and classify microalgae, for example when extracting pigments or colorants or health-promoting additives for food and feed.

For processing red and green microalgae, homogenization is the ideal method as this mechanical process breaks the outer cell wall, safely releasing the intracellular material, like proteins, enzymes or chlorophyll. GEA homogenizers ensure that algae material meets the quality required for foods as well as nutraceuticals, vaccines and insulin, for example.

While centrifuges remove most of the free water from algae suspensions, several applications require algae powder, like supplements or feed additives, which necessitates spray drying. GEA spray dryers allow producers to control particle size distribution, moisture content, bulk density and particle shape, ensuring end customers receive algae powder that delivers precise and repeatable processing results.