Trying to produce cost-competitive renewable products that can compete with petroleum-based commodities like plastics is challenging. Various individual algae strains have been tried as a source material for biofuels and other products traditionally derived from petroleum. But now a consortium of cyanobacteria is being researched as an alternative. Cyanobacteria are microscopic photosynthetic bacteria, with impressive economic and production potential.
After testing their cyanobacteria consortium at a small scale in a closed system, startup company HelioBioSys needed to prove their idea at a larger scale, in an environment more closely resembling industrial-scale production.
Sandia National Laboratories operates open, yet environmentally controlled algae ponds that are used to research promising new strains and technologies. Through a collaborative project, Sandia is helping HelioBioSys validate their cyanobacterial consortium strategy with facilities and expertise that would otherwise be unavailable to the small company.
The research is helping to reveal the roles of each cyanobacteria strain within the consortium, so growing strategies can be fine-tuned to optimize production. The pilot-scale environment is also proving that these cyanobacteria can be grown in open ponds without experiencing damaging contamination from “spectator” species (unintentionally introduced microorganisms). At the same time the pilot is evaluating the impacts of different nutrient (nitrogen, carbon dioxide) addition levels, and harvesting strategies.
The two founders of HelioBioSys came up with the idea of using a cyanobacterial consortium as a source of fermentable sugars for biofuels. Their trio of cyanobacteria coexist in a system resembling those in nature, as each species fills a niche and has a synergistic relationship with the others. The cyanobacteria produce a variety of polysaccharides that can be processed into biofuels and sustainable biomaterials, including plastics.
The cyanobacteria consortium has shown higher product concentrations than those typically observed with microalgae, but does not require expensive fertilizers or nutrients as the cyanobacteria fix N2 and CO2 directly from air. Harvesting is easier, too, as the organisms secrete their sugars directly into the water, forming a gel at the appropriate pH. Polysachharides and biomass can be harvested separately or together, depending on the intended end product.
The HelioBioSys cyanobacteria are producing concentrations of bioproducts more than double those that are common with algae. They are achieving these superior product concentrations with lower production costs.
This collaborative project with Sandia is giving HelioBioSys metrics to justify proceeding to large scale commercial production. It is creating a new biomaterials-based industry opportunity and also a petroleum displacement strategy for U.S. energy security.