University of Arizona researchers in the College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences have created a photobioreactor capable of sustainably producing microalgae and other microorganisms for industrial use.
The Air Accordion Photobioreactor was developed by UArizona biosystems engineering professor Joel Cuello and his team. The system’s unique “zigzag” configuration is implemented using a low-cost polyethylene material and is designed for excellent mixing and hydrodynamic properties. It promotes optimal growth of microorganisms while maximizing water and nutrient efficiency. Upcoming product trials for the Air Accordion will focus on producing health supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids and spirulina.
Through Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), the university office that commercializes inventions stemming from research, the UArizona licensed the Air Accordion, along with five other bioreactor designs developed by Cuello’s Biosystems Engineering group at the university, to Tucson-based startup AlgaeCell, LLC in September 2020. In collaboration with Cuello, CEO Hamed Ismail is spearheading efforts to bring the technology to market, such as conducting product trials and securing industry partnerships.
"As an engineering/science professor,” said Cuello, “commercialization of what my ‘bioimagineering’ team designs and develops is truly the culminating capstone for our research endeavors – enabling our innovations to be productively applied to create sustained value for all stakeholders in society, including the general public. It really does make our work so much more impactful and rewarding."
Bioreactors are used for growing organisms such as yeast, bacteria, and algae, as well as plant and mammalian cells to manufacture a host of products, including antibodies and vaccines. Industry uses them in the production of pharmaceuticals and health-related supplements. Conventional bioreactors for microalgae that use long tubes/pipes or columns and even panels made of glass or polycarbonate are typically expensive to manufacture and often fail to maintain desired mixing characteristics when scaled up for industrial production.
“Sustainable production capabilities are becoming ever more critical in industries that have reached the tipping point using traditional methods,” said Bruce Burgess, director of venture development for TLA. “The technology licensed by UArizona to AlgaeCell opens the door for many producers to meet the increasing demands for product.”
With the ability to scale, large implementations of the Air Accordion could have significant implications, representing a leap forward in how bioreactors contribute to sustainability. The impact would be immediate for the omega-3 fatty acid industry, which is traditionally reliant on fish populations and contributes to harmful overfishing practices. Meanwhile, supplements like spirulina are farmed in open agriculture environments with poor water and nutrient reusability, and often become vulnerable to environmental toxins and other types of contaminants. The closed system design of the Air Accordion allows these algae-based products to be produced with vastly improved yield and quality without causing environmental degradation.
Ismail and Cuello worked with TLA commercialization experts Tod McCauley, Senior Licensing Manager for the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, and Steven Wood, Mentor-in-Residence, to protect the intellectual property for the invention, develop a commercialization strategy and launch the company.
TLA is only one member of an "innovation oasis” of providers supporting the startup. AlgaeCell is scheduled to enter a round of products trials which will document the efficacy of the bioreactor across a variety of potential products. Following these trials, the company will locate at the UArizona Center for Innovation incubator, located at Tech Parks Arizona, where the team will get hands-on consulting and further mentorship to grow the company.