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Change the world

12/05/2023

With a powerful biorefinery to process microalgae as a renewable, health-giving resource, Nelson Mandela University's InnoVenton/DCTS innovates and develops products for the energy, pharmaceutical, agriculture and food sectors.

Using biostimulants extracted from microalgae to boost agricultural plant growth and contribute to nanomedicine, is all part of the value chain at InnoVenton/DCTS (Institute for Chemical Technology and Downstream Chemicals Technology Station).

“From concept to the harvesting and formulation of microalgae for a range of products, InnoVenton/DCTS is focused on contributing to a vibrant bio-economy,” says InnoVenton Acting Director, Dr Gary Dugmore. “We have intentionally positioned ourselves to support the Department of Science and Innovation’s bio-economy strategy, with its emphasis on the industrial and environmental sectors, agriculture and health.”

At InnoVenton they have microalgae growing in ponds and buckets. It’s a rapid way of growing biomass that doesn’t take up much space, and, while it uses a lot of water to grow it, the water is repeatedly reused.

“In 2008 we first started using microalgae in our biorefinery to develop a recovered-waste fossil fuel product called Coalgae®. Essentially, we mix algae slurry with fine waste coal and pass it through the filter process,” says InnoVenton’s technical manager, Louise Hamilton.

“Coalgae® is fully developed but the techno-economics of using it on a large scale are not there yet. We’re actively working on this, but in the meantime we are testing it with smaller businesses. Currently, for example, a chicken abattoir in Jansenville, Eastern Cape is using it as fuel for their 20-ton boiler.”

Innovation with microalgae is not new but it is currently enjoying considerable momentum worldwide. “It’s all about getting away from fossil fuel and non-renewable sources,” explains Dr Dugmore. “The CSIR, for example, used algae-based technology to make biodegradable plastic bags. We can use the carbon from algae rather than carbon from fossil fuels to contribute to South Africa’s bio-economy drive.”

The InnoVenton team has been working on developing higher-value products, using the biorefinery facility to get as much value as possible out of the microalgae, and increasing their collaborations with industry, small and large.

“Omnia Fertilizer is one of the larger companies we are working with to test our biostimulant product – a microalgal extract that stimulates growth in plants as a complement to fertiliser to increase crop yields,” says Hamilton. “In adverse conditions such as drought or poor soil, it helps the plants cope better and uptake nutrients more efficiently.”

Microalgae are known for their antioxidant, immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties and high protein content and are used as a beneficial food-grade ingredient, as well as for food colourants and cosmetics

One of several InnoVenton successes is a low-tech, cost effective, high yield spirulina cultivation system to produce biofertiliser and animal feed. For example, the  microalgae formula has been developed to replace fishmeal in fish feed. This is currently being tested at a Gqerberha-based tilapia aquaculture project.

“We recently started working with Dr Steven Mufamadi, who holds the new Chair in Nanomedicine at Mandela University,” says Dr Dugmore. “We’re looking at the optimisation of a phycocyanin protein extraction from microalgae as an active ingredient and component in the formulation of nanomedicine. Dr Mufamadi is looking into the potential of microalgae applications for wound-healing in diabetes sufferers.”

To grow skills in all areas of the bio-economy, in April 2022 InnoVenton launched its one year transdisciplinary graduate internship programme, which includes graduates from Mandela University, University of Johannesburg, Walter Sisulu University and Durban University of Technology.

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057
debbie.derry@mandela.ac.za