Industrial ecology: large-scale cultivation of microalgae in French Guiana

In February 2021, the refining company SARA launched an ambitious industrial ecology project, managed by ADEME (French Agency for Environment and Energy Management).  This pioneering industrial ecology undertaking will serve to implement the construction of an immense demonstrator facility in French Guiana — the largest of its kind to be built on French territory to date. It aims to create novel, sustainable systems based on the valorisation of industrial CO2 through the large-scale production of microalgae. This highly innovative venture draws upon several research projects in order to roll out the cultivation of microalgae for third-generation biofuels, as well as biomaterials and dietary supplements. As its research partners, SARA selected the GEPEA Laboratory via its world-renowned AlgoSolis platform, and CAPACITÉS, the private engineering and research valorisation subsidiary of the University of Nantes. As a subcontractor, the Saint-Nazaire company, AlgoSource, will also play its part.

Forging a microalgae-based bioeconomy in French Guiana

In its role as coordinator of this project, called the PIAN project, SARA, a refining company based in Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana, has been developing initiatives concerning new energies, environmental protection and bio-based economies for many years. The PIAN project is geared towards fostering the microalgae sector in Overseas France, starting with French Guiana, where the climatic conditions are particularly favourable to microalgal culture. Its ultimate goal is the large-scale roll-out of simple cultivation systems that take full advantage of these conditions in order to establish and sustain a new bioeconomy, thereby promoting job creation while reducing environmental impact and valorising CO2 emissions from industrial sites.         

This long-standing partnership with the GEPEA Laboratory, for which CAPACITÉS and AlgoSource act as subcontractors, dates back to 2017. Our initial collaboration involved evaluating the viability of integrating microalgal culture into industrial ecology and circular economy. CAPACITÉS’s engineers took samples of around 10 strains of algae from their natural environment in French Guiana and screened them for their growth rate and capability to accumulate lipids at the AlgoSolis facility in Saint-Nazaire. Their research served to isolate, among others, several high-potential endemic strains, with three strains showing particular promise for biofuel production.

Scaling up a cultivation process devised in 2017

The PIAN project has served to consolidate these efforts by confirming their viability with respect to integrating microalgal production into French Guiana. Having been selected during a call for proposals issued by “Programme d’Investissement d’Avenir” (PIA assigns innovation funding financed by the French government), entitled “Bioéconomie et Protection de l’Environnement” (Bioeconomy and Environmental Protection), which is managed by ADEME, the PIAN project will be developed over a period of three years. Its total cost is €5.64 million, of which €4.9 million qualifies for ADEME funding, and whereof €0.74 million was awarded to the GEPEA for its partnership role.

These funds are to finance the installation of a demonstrator facility at one of the SARA industrial sites in order to define, approve and optimise integrated procedures for two strains that have yet to been grown over large areas. The selected strains are spirulina, which will be cultivated for new applications in nutrition, cosmetics and biomaterials, as well as a local oleaginous microalgae, previously identified by the GEPEA Laboratory, for the production of 3G biofuels. New generation processes, called wet processes, which were developed on the GEPEA’s AlgoSolis platform, will be tested here.

Thanks to PIA’s funding, SARA will thus be able to launch a new phase in its industrial development by constructing a demonstrator facility that will provide the necessary data for further implementation on future sites. It has demonstrated its continued trust in the GEPEA, which in turn has chosen to join forces with CAPACITÉS and AlgoSource, once again, in order to bring this project to fruition.

This far-reaching project represents the culmination of several years of research and collaboration with CAPACITÉS regarding the use of microalgae in industrial ecology, large-scale solar cultivation and third-generation biofuels.

The European Space Agency has entrusted QinetiQ and CAPACITÉS to harvest spirulina in zero-gravity conditions

As part of the MELiSSA project (Micro-Ecological Life Support Alternative), the European Space Agency (ESA) has selected QinetiQ, partnered with CAPACITÉS, to demonstrate the efficacy of a process for cultivating and harvesting spirulina in zero-gravity conditions. This microalgae has the ability to recycle space-station waste by feeding on carbon and nitrogen, to produce food with high nutritional potential. 

The goal: create an autonomous space station

Launched in 1989, the MELiSSA project aspires to transform a spaceship into a closed ecosystem by recycling carbon dioxide and organic waste and transforming it into food, oxygen and water. For instance, supplying the International Space Station (ISS) with oxygen, water and food is indeed very costly and time-consuming. Long-haul space missions to the moon or Mars would require 30 tons of supplies; hence the need to develop a bioregenerative system.

The challenge: cultivate and harvest spirulina in zero-gravity conditions

Spirulina is extremely beneficial microalgae from a nutritional standpoint. Is recycles the water in which it grows and produces oxygen. Moreover, it grows up to 100 times faster than a terrestrial plant. It is the ideal candidate for a space mission.

The challenge is to succeed in cultivating and harvesting it in space, and therefore in zero gravity. With this aim, our microalgae bioprocesses engineers will soon attempt to validate an axenic process to continuously cultivate and harvest spirulina in a controlled photobioreactor developed by the laboratory GEPEA: HECTOR. QinetiQ and CAPACITÉS will study several types of filtration technology, with the goal of achieving microalgae filtration in the absence of gravity.

The project began in December 2020 and should last a little over one year.

The CPV recognised by the State as “Manufacturing Integrator in Gene Therapy”

The Nantes “Centre de Production de Vecteurs”, known as the “CPV” (Vector Production Centre), which is part of the gene therapy laboratory, was named winner of the State’s Grand Défi (Big Challenge) in the “Biopharmaceuticals” category.

Integrators are required to participate in cutting-edge consortia in order to improve yields and curb the production costs of emergent biological molecules.

What does the certification “Manufacturing Integrator” mean?

The State launched the Grand Défi for Biopharmaceuticals in the spring of 2019 with a view to “improving yields and managing production costs.” Following a call for expressions of interest that was initiated in June 2020 by the Secretary-General of Investment, six technology platforms were selected to become manufacturing integrators for the Grand Défi, including the Nantes CPV for its gene therapy products issuing from viral vector bioprocessing.

The goal of the Grand Défi for bioproduction is to encourage the manufacture of innovative advanced therapy medicinal products, while improving their yields and curbing their production costs in order to meet the challenges of the pharmaceutical industry and thus facilitate patient access to these promising new treatments.

The CPV platform: producing and characterising viral vectors

Founded in 1997, the Centre de Production de Vecteurs — the Vector Production Centre of the Gene Therapy Laboratory in Nantes, UMR1089 — develops viral vector production and characterisation processes for gene transfer based on adenoviruses and AAVs (adeno-associated viruses). These are intended for applications ranging from basic research up to translational levels.

The CPV, a Capacités partner

Teams from the CPV and Capacités are currently collaborating on viral vector production and characterisation projects. Together, they are developing customised analytical tests to improve the characterisation of future gene therapy medicinal products. To find out more about our joint projects, please see below.

If you have any questions concerning a partnership with the Nantes CPV, a manufacturing integrator of the Grand Défi in biopharmaceuticals, please contact Oumeya Adjali and Emilie Audran.

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