Just quickly save the world
With its PhotoBionicCell, a high-tech bioreactor for the efficient photosynthesis of blue-green algae, Festo aims to contribute to improving the quality of life of current and future generations through the automated cultivation of biomass on a large scale.23 Dec 2022
Our planet is on the verge of rapid changes, the likes of which have previously only been triggered by singular events. But this time it is not a comet or a super volcano, this time it is man who first made the earth his subject - and is now in the process of destroying it in his hubris. This process can only be stopped by the joint efforts of all. The preservation of a future worth living can only succeed if mankind, the animal world and the plant world live in a harmonious balance as soon as possible. Festo, at once a global player and an independent family-owned company based in Esslingen am Neckar, has also recognized the signs of the times and considers the bioeconomy to be the economic system of the future. "Our claim is to make a decisive contribution to improving the quality of life of current and future generations - by cultivating biomass on a large scale through our automation technology," explains Dr. Elias Knubben, Vice President Corporate Research and Innovation at Festo.
Efficient carbon dioxide storage
In this context, the Festo bionics team recently devoted more attention to photosynthesis. As is well known, it ensures that the chloroplasts in algae cells convert sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into oxygen and chemical energy sources or organic valuable substances. With the recently presented PhotoBionicCell project, the Swabians now want to use this process for a kind of industrial biologization. The innovative photobioreactor is to be capable of cultivating algae automatically and keeping their growth under control, i.e. growing the biomass in a closed cycle in a highly efficient and resource-saving manner. Thanks to Festo's automation technology and the resulting optimal conditions, these algae should be able to bind one hundred times more carbon dioxide than land plants such as trees or corn.
Climate-neutral end products thanks to biobased starting materials
But the algae not only bind excess CO2, their metabolic processes produce fatty acids, color pigments and surfactants, among other things, which can serve as starting materials for the production of medicines, food, plastics or cosmetics. And unlike mineral oil-based products, the biobased end products can generally be biodegraded and - in keeping with a holistic circular economy - recycled in a climate-neutral manner. To illustrate this, Festo gives the following example: the classic production of a shampoo container requires around one liter of petroleum. At the end of its life, the bottle ends up in an incinerator and releases three kilograms of CO2 - the classic negative CO2 balance, which is essentially responsible for climate change. If you now use algae-based bioplastics instead, three kilograms of CO2 are bound first, which are released again at the end of the life cycle. The cycle is in balance.
Precise quantification thanks to quantum technology
In developing the PhotoBionicCell, the first task was to find a particularly suitable algae species. The researchers from the Bionic Learning Network finally chose the blue-green algae Synechocystis. In addition to color pigments and omega-3 fatty acids, it also produces polyhydroxybutyric acid (PHB) - and this PHB can be processed by adding other substances, including 3D printing. But the decision to use Synechocystis was by no means the end of the story. Perhaps the greatest challenge in bioreactors is to precisely quantify the amount of biomass. For this, Festo logically relies on a quantum technology sensor from the start-up Q.ANT, which is able to provide precise information about the growth of the organisms in real time. For this purpose, the algae are fed to it continuously and automatically by special microfluidic components from Festo, for example pumps for precise control of the smallest quantities of liquid. The quantum sensor is said to be capable of optically analyzing even individual cells so that the amount of biomass can be precisely determined. But that's not all: with the help of artificial intelligence (AI), it also examines the cells for their vitality. Only then is it possible to react to undesirable process events and intervene in a regulating manner.
Software solutions for a digitalized laboratory
But Festo would not be Festo if automation had already been exhausted at this point. Many analyses in the laboratory are still carried out manually, which is notoriously time-consuming and can lead to errors. If it were possible to automate the laboratory equipment as well, all the necessary data could be read directly and in real time in the future. So the researchers developed their own software for PhotoBionicCell, whose dashboard can display several photobioreactors with current data and live recordings. This means that manual parameter changes and the corresponding evaluations can be made remotely and 24 hours a day. In addition, users can react to changes in the bioreactor at any time and, for example, initiate product harvesting at the optimal time.
AI ensures further optimization
AI is then used again to evaluate the data. This allows the bioreactor to be optimized either for the propagation of algae cultures or for maintaining specified growth parameters with minimal energy input.
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