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Innovative harvesting processes for microalgae biomass production: A perspective from patent literature

Deconinck, Nico, Muylaert, Koenraad, Ivens, Wilfried, Vandamme, Dries
Algal research 2018 v.31 pp. 469-477
aquatic environment, biomass production, energy, filters, filtration, flocculation, fuel production, greenhouse gases, harvesting, magnetism, microalgae, patents
The harvesting of microalgae for biofuel production consists of a primary concentration step, followed by a separation step to isolate the microalgal biomass from its aquatic environment. Recent research focussed mainly on the technological feasibility of various separation processes. However, to what extent these innovative harvesting strategies have been commercialized and therefore have led to actual innovation in the current microalgae biotech industry by the creation of intellectual property, has remained unexplored. This study reviews the scientific literature based on technological, economical and environmental criteria of 13 primary and 8 secondary harvesting methods. Commercial deployment was evaluated via patent analysis. Auto- and co-flocculation, as well as sedimentation, overall scored best for economic (CAPEX and OPEX) and environmental (energy and GHG) criteria, while belt filters scored the highest on the technological criteria (TSS). Hence, only 4 patents based on auto-/co-flocculation, sedimentation and only two for belt filtration are still in force. Technologies based on organic, electrolytic and magnetic flocculation seem to be more successfully patented. Since patenting involves making the technology freely available for others, small but sometimes crucial improvements in low-tech systems may be often kept as a company secret instead. So far, no single harvesting process with superior feasibility has emerged for application on a large commercial scale. This is mainly due to the difference in relative importance of technological, economical and environmental criteria for each harvesting process dependent on the used strain and the final products.