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Smart technology helps scientists enhance high-value algae

Smart technology helps scientists enhance high-value algae

Photobioreactor Mike Packer

New Zealand’s lucrative blue-biotech sector has received a boost with the launch of a highly- sophisticated, multi-vessel photobioreactor (PBR).

The technology has been designed and built by Cawthron Institute, New Zealand’s largest independent science organisation, to enhance the production of valuable products and healthy food ingredients from algae.

“We developed this technology in response to industry partner’s needs to rapidly optimise growth conditions and uses for algal product development. It will help advance their operations so they can remain at the forefront of international markets,” Cawthron scientist Mike Packer says.

“We are now focusing on using this new photobioreactor to develop high-value products for our clients and optimising their processes.”

Photobioreactors are equipment for growing algae and other phototrophic microorganisms that need light energy to grow. They are used in many industries worldwide and are highly desirable for growing algae for export products.

At Cawthron, scientists use PBRs to trial algal growth models which can then be scaled up for commercial use by industry partners.

“We specialise in PBR technology and have them in many different shapes and sizes but none as capable as this,” Dr Packer says.

“This new system speeds up our ability to gather information so we can understand how to make the algae grow better and how conditions affect behaviour so it produces desirable molecules such as bioactives, antioxidants, cosmetic and key nutritional ingredients used by the nutraceutical, cosmeceutical, biotechnology and aquaculture sectors.”

One of Cawthron’s key clients is nutraceutical company Supreme Biotechnology Ltd which grows and extracts the high-value algae compound astaxanthin on a commercial scale for the global market. The company can already see potential for the new technology.

“We are excited about this development by the Cawthron and we’re keen to utilise their expertise and equipment to optimise our algae growth on a commercial scale. Cawthron have been an essential partner in our journey so far, and will continue to be,” Supreme Biotechnologies Chief Executive Tony Dowd says.

A multidisciplinary team of scientists including mathematicians, engineers and biologists helped design, develop and refine the device over the past three years.


- Cawthron is New Zealand’s largest independent science organisation, specialising in research that protects the environment and supports sustainable development of primary industries.

- It is a world-leader in microalgae and algal technologies particularly in harmful algal blooms and extraction of high value compounds from algae.

- Cawthron works alongside a number of New Zealand biotechnology companies and its expertise is helping keep New Zealand at the forefront of the global biotechnology industry.

- In 2011 Cawthron launched Cawthron Natural Compounds, an initiative focused on extracting minute amounts of complex organic compounds sourced from algae and selling them to international markets. Cawthron is one of just a handful of organisations worldwide with the capability to produce these rare, naturally occurring compounds and bring them to market.


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