Chile’s flourishing micro-algae industry breaks new ground

More efficient algae cultivation techniques could lead to greener agricultural practices, boosting human nutrition and even powering cars.

Micro-algaes in Chile are getting everyone from investors to environmentalists excited, with breakthroughs in cultivation techniques opening up a world of opportunities for the booming industry.

The potential applications for the microscopic lifeforms are enormous and – although they have been used for decades in providing nutrients to mammals, birds and fish – relatively untapped, with uses as diverse as new vaccines and alternative energy sources waiting to be developed.

And, given more research and investment, production could become an efficient and cost-effective process, as micro-algaes reproduce easily and don’t require big cultivation pools.

“Historically, micro-algaes have been used in Chile to feed species like scallops and oysters,” Luis Pichott, manager of the Marine Resources Area at Fundación Chile, told Diario Financiero.

“However, in the last few years they have been employed to obtain functional components for human and animal food and also to generate bio-diesel, although this is still in its infancy and faces great challenges.”

The plethora of new uses for micro-algaes in recent years – from salmon vaccines to organic fertilizers – have come as the fruit of research and investment in new cultivation techniques that improve production.

In Chile’s Valparaíso region, for example, a prototype model of a new hybrid photobioreactor has been developed that uses natural light as its primary energy input.

The company behind the prototype, Aeon Biogroup, aims to expand the current 5,200 liter capacity cultivator to a new, industrial-scale model in the north of the country – and are looking for an investment of US$4 million to realize their goal.

“We are patenting the photobioreactor, but for the time being only we produce at prototype level,” said Gabriel Castro, research and development manager at Aeon Biogroup, to Diario Financiero. “We want to raise capital to install a plant that allows us to supply biomass to other companies.”

One of the most exciting prospects from new plants developed by companies such as Aeon Biogroup is actually a by-product of the production process – high quantities of oil that can be used for the creation of bio-fuels.

Bio-fuels are one of the most efficient means of generating bio-diesel, a combustible energy that could be a crucial development in finding an alternative to petroleum.

Still, according to the experts, there is much more work and research to be done before drivers start filling up their tanks with microbes. “Chile has all the conditions necessary for the generation of bio-diesel,” said Pichott, “but in terms of competitive costs, there is still a long way to go.”