By Eduardo Geraque | FAPESP Innovative R&D – An innovative idea relating to the cultivation of microalgae for the extraction of high value-added bioproducts for industry has been incubated in São Paulo, Brazil, and has now found an important niche market. Its feasibility was tested with support from FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE).
Developed at the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology (CIETEC), an incubator run jointly by the University of São Paulo (USP) and the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (IPEN), the innovation gave rise to a complete small-scale biorefinery in less than five years, and the startup was one of 14 selected worldwide to participate in an event organized by the United Nations.
The startup is Bioativos Naturais, which trades as BioativosGroup and operates on a 1,000 square meter lot in Santana de Parnaíba, metropolitan São Paulo. Its research, development and innovation center has a laboratory with equipment produced in house to optimize and test project feasibility. By 2020, it will have a manufacturing plant up and running on the same site.
Given its focus on bioproducts for the bioeconomy, the idea of optimizing microalgal growth in a low-cost medium was initially aimed at the pharmaceutical industry as a way of obtaining biomass for use as raw material for the extraction of bioproducts. According to Luiz Fernando Mendes, a chemist and one of the firm’s founding partners, this initial idea had to evolve in line with the concepts of the “new global bioeconomy”. So now, he explains, it plans to offer manufacturers of chemicals and food products high-quality bioproducts that pose no threat to human or animal health and are produced by green, sustainable industrial processes, preferably without any effluent or waste disposal into the environment.
“BioativosGroup wants to be Latin America’s first holistic biorefinery, using subcritical and supercritical fluid extraction technology for full conversion of renewable biomass resources, including microalgae, into green intermediate chemicals,” Mendes says.
In 2016, when the project had matured, the firm won support from FAPESP’s PIPE program to develop protocols for the fractioning of high-value-added compounds from microalgae in a sustainable total-use biorefining context and to establish a multipurpose modular plant for the extraction of ingredients.
“The use of supercritical carbon dioxide fluid extraction to obtain essential oils and bioactive fractions is an increasingly desirable technique in today’s world. It tends to make processing faster while also significantly enhancing the quality of the bioproducts extracted,” Mendes says. A supercritical fluid is any substance at a temperature and pressure above its critical point, where distinct liquid and gas phases do not exist.
The firm grows microalgae in low-cost artificial media developed in house. During the industrial process, the algae consume part of the CO2 and simultaneously produce large amounts of biomass for the extraction of commercially valuable bioproducts such as fatty acids, carotenoids, proteins, amino acids and carbohydrates.
The firm plans to use the technology it has developed to process more than 20 types of biomass starting in 2020, ranging from algae to chamomile and sugarcane bagasse. Other potential feedstocks include clove, green coffee and onion.
The biomass is processed using fluids pressurized to a point close to the critical level. The pressurized fluids include carbon gas, water and ethanol. According to Mendes, the technology permits the isolation of vegetable oils, for example, to produce aromas for use in perfumes and essential oils or of hop resin for use in brewing craft and industrial beers. The choice of biomass will depend on each customer’s project.
“Our technology has competitive advantages over the conventional technology used by manufacturers. It can be installed anywhere in Brazil, thanks to the small size of our mini-biorefinery. In addition, we guarantee fast payback and a shorter processing time,” Mendes says. Production capacity depends on the feedstock, but time and money will be saved in all cases, he adds.
For example, clove oil – widely used by the food and cosmetics industries – can be extracted in 45 minutes by the method developed by the firm, compared with six days by conventional methods.
The bioproducts to be isolated from these feedstocks are not the only possible results. Because biomass conversion in the biorefinery has no negative impacts, the biomass itself is a high-value-added product at the end of the process and can be recovered in the form of dearomatized, defatted and purified flour for use in other processes, for example. This is another source of cost reduction for customers.
In 2018, the technology was ready for scale ramp-up, and BioativosGroup won support from the PIPE/PAPPE program – which combines funding from FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program and FINEP, the Brazilian government’s innovation agency – for the industrial and commercial development of bioproducts from microalgae, ginger and turmeric.
The firm has invested approximately BRL 4 million in the last four years, thanks to funding from PIPE and federal agencies such as FINEP, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), and the National Service of Industrial Training (SENAI), an initiative from Brazil’s National Confederation of Industry (CNI).
“The project’s evolution shows that the use of green technology can be efficient,” Mendes says, adding that his team has produced a paradigm shift by proving the technical and economic feasibility of subcritical and supercritical fluid extraction technology.
In addition to incubation at CIETEC, the history of BioativosGroup also includes a period at Campinas Technology Park, where it strengthened its ties with the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in São Paulo State.
The firm has two other co-owners, one of whom is biomedical scientist and biochemist Leonardo Villela, who notes that its biorefinery can be used in many industrial processes, including the production of fine chemicals, food and drink, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. “In some cases,” he says, “our purified flour is so rich in starch that it can be used in bakery goods or ice cream. The waste from certain processes becomes a feedstock for others. Another application for this flour could be as an animal feed additive.”
Given the lack of residue and the fact that the technology does not use petroleum products, it can be considered part of the circular bioeconomy. “It was tough going to begin with, and we still have a lot to learn,” Mendes says. The firm is talking to prospective partners and customers in Brazil and abroad, especially in Germany.
Mendes says Bioativos will integrate its biorefinery into a system for producing microalgae in photobioreactors. Algal biomass will be used as a renewable feedstock to produce advanced bioproducts for industry, such as astaxanthin, most of which is currently synthesized from petroleum.