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Purple Sun: A Solar Greenhouse Project Promoting the Microalgae Industry

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Sophia Antipolis, February 2014.
Enable the algal biomass industry to take advantage of its extraordinary potential by reducing its production costs and environmental footprint–—that is the challenge of the Purple Sun Microalgal Photovoltaic Greenhouses (MPG), part of the 2013 French National Research Agency’s program “Bio-Materials and Energy (Bio-ME)” conducted by seven partners:

Inria Sophia Antipolis-Méditerranée (BIOCORE), CNRS-UPMC (Oceanography Laboratories in Villefranche), INRA Sophia Antipolis (TEAPEA), Sunpartner Technologies, ACRI, and Armines (PERSEE).

Purple Sun will develop this breakthrough solar greenhouse concept, which enables the selective use of light to optimally combine the production of algal biomass through photosynthesis and solar energy production. This new generation of solar greenhouses will provide high yields at lower costs, accelerating the growth of microalgae industry.

This R&D program has just received funding from the French National Research Agency of € 3 million ($ 4.1 million) over three years.

Developing the Microalgae Industry: the Economic Stakes…

With their rapid growth, microalgae have the advantage of producing substances that are useful for several industries. Already used in animal feed, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals, microalgae have emerged in recent years as a promising sector for green chemistry (fertilizers, bioplastics) and bioenergy (biogas and biodiesel). These photosynthetic microorganisms are indeed an effective solution for recycling CO2 and producing third-generation biofuels.*

To make this industry competitive, we must improve its environmental and economic competitiveness. One of the major challenges is reducing costs, in particular its energy costs.

…and the Technological Challenge.

This ambitious goal started from two observations:
➢ Natural levels of solar energy lead to photosaturation and photoinhibition, which damage the photosynthetic yield of microalgae and raise the temperature of the crops to counterproductive levels.
➢ Microalgae grow best under certain wavelengths of light (blue and red).

The technological challenge, therefore, is to optimally redirect solar radiation, part for growing microalgae and the rest for producing the photovoltaic electricity required by the production process, in line with the concept of a biorefinery.

Solar Greenhouses for Microalgae

The consortium for this 2013 National Research program “Bio-Materials and Energy (Bio-ME)” brings together seven partners who are rethinking the future in order to serve the microalgae industry. They have expertise in modern greenhouse design and management (INRA), microalgae (LOV and INRIA), innovative PV technology (Sunpartner and Armines), and numerical computation and impact assessments (ACRI and INRIA).

Together, they have gone even further by inventing a new, positive-energy system for growing microalgae, which selectively uses light to combine the production of algal biomass by photosynthesis with solar energy production.

In November 2013, the Alpes Maritimes region of France distinguished this Microalgal Photovoltaic Greenhouses (MPG) concept, awarding it their Special Prize for Climate Energy.

Breakthrough Technology

Preliminary experiments on the microalgae Dunaliella salina have demonstrated the relevance of the transparent solar Wysips® (What You See is a Photovoltaic Surface) technology, invented and developed by Sunpartner Technologies (recipient of the « Nobel Sustainability Supported Clean TechCompany 2013” award). Using Wysips® enabled researchers to maintain biological productivity at medium light intensity and to reduce mortality at high intensities, while producing photovoltaic electricity.

Technological developments of the project will be directed according to their costs and environmental impacts. The objective of the project is to determine and to test the best design for a greenhouse that optimizes the use of the solar spectrum for photosynthesis and photovoltaic energy production.

Experiments will be performed to better understand and master the effect of colored light (lacking some wavelengths) on microalgae growth rate and their bioaccumulation of energetic compounds.

Ultimately, the goal is to prepare the next generation of photovoltaic components optimized for greenhouses.

The gains and costs will be evaluated at the scale of the MPG thanks to dedicated numerical tools validated with experimental data acquired from these experimental greenhouses.

Pilot project : Olivier BERNARD de l’INRIA –

Media Contact Sunpartner Technologies
+33 (0)6 15 71 16 76

* Third-generation biofuels differ from biofuels that are derived from crops traditionally used for food and from second-generation biofuels that are produced from non-food plant sources such as wood and plant waste.