University of Arizona researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Engineering and the BIO5 Institute have created a system capable of sustainably producing industrial-scale microalgae and other microorganisms used in pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements and vaccines.
Biosystems engineering professor Joel Cuello and his team developed the new technology, called the Air Accordion Photobioreactor. The system’s unique zigzag configuration, a departure from conventional bioreactors, is made of a low-cost polyethylene material and is designed for excellent mixing and hydrodynamic properties that promote the optimal growth of microorganisms while maximizing water and nutrient efficiency.
"As an engineering/science professor, commercialization of what my ‘bioimagineering’ team designs and develops is truly the culminating capstone for our research endeavors – enabling our innovations to be productively applied to create sustained value for all stakeholders in society, including the general public,” Cuello said. “It really does make our work so much more impactful and rewarding."
Bioreactors are used for growing organisms such as yeast, bacteria, and algae, as well as plant and mammalian cells to manufacture a host of products, including antibodies and vaccines. Conventional bioreactors for microalgae that use long tubes/pipes or columns and even panels made of glass or polycarbonate are typically expensive to manufacture and often fail to maintain desired mixing characteristics when scaled up for industrial production.
Upcoming product trials for the Air Accordion will focus on producing health supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids and spirulina.
With the ability to scale up, the Air Accordion could have significant implications, representing a leap forward in how bioreactors contribute to sustainability. The impact would be immediate for the omega-3 fatty acid industry, which has been traditionally reliant on fish populations and contributes to harmful overfishing practices.