Impact of Algal Harvesting Technology on Ecosystem Function

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Chemical & Biological Engineering


Our ever increasing reliance on fossil fuels as an energy source is causing mankind multiple problems. Global political stability is strongly influenced by fossil fuel producing countries and prices vary accordingly. Fossil fuel availability is also finite and therefore alternatives will inevitably be required. However, the detrimental impact on the environment is perhaps the most significant. Rising CO2 levels are a major contributor to climate change. Biofuels are an alternative source of energy derived from renewable biological material. The major advantage of this fuel source is the carbon neutrality because CO2 emission is balanced by the CO2 fixation used to make the biological material. However, the initial wave of enthusiasm for producing biofuels was met by an unpredicted but substantial side effect. Agricultural land was being used for biofuel crops instead of food crops and compounding the food shortage problem. Food deficiency is expected to worsen as the world's population reaches the predicted 9.2 billion by 2050 (1). Therefore, caution in terms of the social, economic and environmental impacts of biofuel production must be taken.

Although these issues are highly relevant, it can be argued that the main driver for moving towards renewable energy sources remains economical. The efficiency of biofuel production from algae has improved dramatically in the last few years, for example, increased lipid fuel content through genetic engineering (2), however, several bottlenecks remain to make it economically viable. One major issue is the energy cost associated with harvesting algae, where up to 30% of costs can originate (3). At the University of Sheffield, a multi-award winning device can be used to harvest cells using minimum energy input and therefore has the ability to make biofuel production more economically competitive with fossil fuels (4). Existing techniques have been shown to be intrusive and have scale-up issues. The device uses laminar flow to create a bubble flux and has been shown to be 99.2% efficient in harvesting (3). The technology can be used in monoculture algal ponds and natural lake ecosystems, although the environmental impact of process has not been tested.

With increasing food demand comes the increase in drinking water demand, especially in rapidly developing countries like China and India (5). Eutrophication of drinking water lakes has caused fears of major water shortages to become a reality (6), and this environmental problem is prevalent worldwide (7). The microflotation device has the ability to remediate the lake of algae and restore for subsequent drinking water treatment. The aim of using the harvested algae for biofuel production has been proposed in China to offset the energy input required.

In this project, environmental impact of this technology will be assessed at the microcosm level using an artificial lake ecosystem. The removal of algae and bacteria from the lake has the potential to alter ecosystem structure and function and impact on food webs. Microbes play an essential role in chemical and nutrient cycling and therefore it is likely to be altered by the harvesting process. In this project, the harvesting intensity will be varied and the changes will be quantified, monitored and modelled, using a quantitative metaproteomic approach. This method specifically looks at protein production which is crucial as proteins are the functional entities in cells. Metabolic modelling using this data will be combined with ecological modelling of food web structure. The overall objective is to be able to control ecosystem stability for either continuous algal farming for biofuel, or water remediation with subsequent generation of biofuels.

1. Levy, M., et al. 2005.
2. Radakovits, R., et al., 2010
3. Hanotu, J., et al., 2011
4. Zimmerman, WB. 2011
5. Wu, C., 2011
6. Gao, C., et al. 2010
7. Dodds, W. K., et al., 2009

Planned Impact

This research project entails evaluating a technological platform for harvesting algae in the natural environment. It therefore offers insights into whether algal biomass can be harvested from wild resources for subsequent conversion into biofuels. A major goal of this research is to influence environmental policy and ecosystem management if natural systems are used as algal bio-farms in future.

The project also aims to evaluate 'how' the method can be applied to minimise risk to ecosystem structure and function whilst maximising opportunity for a cleaner, energy efficient fuel generation process. This depends on what is intended for the environment- i) continuously harvesting algae for biofuels, or ii) restoring algal bloom affected lakes. The work therefore impacts the biofuel industry both directly and indirectly. Companies directly involved in biofuel production, particularly those investigating the capability for scaling-up to natural environments, will benefit from using the novel harvesting process if the environmental impact is predictable and manageable. The Chinese government has shown significant interest in the technology for remediating algal bloom affected lakes (see Support Letter from Professor Hsu) and are planning to set up a demonstration plant to remediate Lake Dianchi of algae/cyanobacteria and produce biofuels. The main motivation is to restore the lake water to overcome the huge water shortage which is threatening the country's economic growth. The impact of algal harvesting on the environment and the ability to predict and control responses means the process can be optimised to remediate the lake in an environmental friendly manner. Although more of a transient issue in the UK, initial interest from UK water companies (United Utilities PLC, Anglian Water, Yorkshire Water) has been shown (personal communication) and particularly where incidences of algal blooms is increasing, for example, Lake Windermere.

Although the focus of the research is environmental, the interdisciplinary subject areas involved means national and international research in ecology, proteomics, microbiology, computational biology and environmental engineering will benefit from the research objectives and methodology.

Society would benefit from the increased availability of drinking water (China) and an alternative to fertile-soil sourced terrestrial biofuels will also benefit many countries where food supply has been impacted (Malaysia). The technology and environmental modelling will also impact countries where algal blooms are causing health problems e.g. toxic blooms in Lake Eerie, USA, or problems for the fishing industry.
From a UK perspective, this study demonstrates UK commitment to thoroughly investigate the environmental impact of biofuel production and engineering technology. Developing the technology with associated environmental response information in the UK also means intellectual property of the process can be exported to other countries where biofuel generation is intended for future energy supply.

Personal to the applicant, the research will impact career development by presenting the opportunity to work at the interface of engineering and ecology. Whilst conducting the project I hope to promote understanding between the fields. The project would also highlight how environmental impact is intertwined with the success of innovative technology applications. The interpretation of this research and communication with relevant water and biofuel industries is hoped to enhance synergy with academic objectives.


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Pandhal J (2014) Synthetic microbial ecosystems for biotechnology. in Biotechnology letters

Description Development of metaproteomics as a tool combined with traditional ecology and water chemistry to assess environmental impact of nutrient enrichment in freshwater lakes. This information is useful for large scale cultivation of algae for biodiesel production. The data has focused on the microbial loop- a part of the aquatic ecology usually treated as a black box.

We have performed the process at 50 L scale.

We have successfully won a network grant with University of Warwick developing the computational and experimental side of the research. This was successfully showcased by a well attended workshop in sheffield in September 2019. We plan to write a report to NERC about the network to leverage more support for metaproteomics studies where the UK has failed to keep up pace with countries such as the USA and Germany.
Exploitation Route If new environmental remediation technology is developed, the impact can be assessed using our metaproteomics approach.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description Engaged industrial partner for an Impact Acceleration Award (£25K) for resource recovery from a water retentive pond, Lincolnshire. We have now demonstrated this at 50 L scale in a follow on Innovation Award. We have also extended this work to a project funded by the Ministry of Defence (DASA).
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Economic

Description NERC Innovation Award
Amount £125,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 04/2018
Description New approaches to resolving community metaproteomes: ComProt
Amount £50,400 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S013539/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 12/2019
Description COmProt Metaproteomics workshop in Sheffield 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The workshop also had a competition component where applicants applied to get some metaproteomics work conducted. The competition was won by a group from the Marine Biological Association and we are conducting experiments on their system.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Educational leaflets for Heeley Inner City Farm 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Educational leaflets on the impact of nutrient enrichment and the merits of algae for biotechnology
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Participation at BBC 5Live Energy Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We produced a demonstration stall with algae cultivation and harvesting to demonstrate the merits of alternative energy sources.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013