World Record Biomass Producer
There is a growing interest from industry and society for renewable energy, food, feed and chemicals with a minimal carbon footprint. With a doubling of biomass within two days, the fresh-water fern Azolla ranks amongst the fastest-growing plants on our planet. Fascinated by the immense growth capability of Azolla, the LPP Foundation teamed up with partners from Utrecht University, Wageningen University and Imperial College London (i.e., the Azolla Consortium) to explore the potential of Azolla as biomass producer.
In natural ecosystems, Azolla is well-known from its rapid colonization of, and overgrowth in aquatic environments. Our consortium has now replicated natural growth rates of Azolla biomass (35-40 tons dry-weight Azolla per Ha per year) in climate chambers under ambient CO2. Under a higher CO2 regime, i.e., with the effective use of waste streams from industry growth rates vastly increase.
The advantages of Azolla that makes it a high-potential crop:
1. Azolla lives in symbiosis with a nitrogen-fixing bacteria, Anabaena Azollae, which fixes nitrogen from the air. This is beneficial in two ways.
- Because of this symbiosis, Azolla does not depend on nitrogen fertilization, which makes it a cost-efficient crop.
- Less fertilizer use greatly reduces the environmental imprint of Azolla agriculture compared to other crops.
2. Azolla is an aquatic fern. As such, it can be grown in a closed system. This has several advantages.
- A closed cropping system means no nutrients are leaked, and are therefore used efficiently.
- Azolla agriculture has no competition to conventional arable crops because the closed systems can be placed on marginal lands
- Closed systems can be built in industrial regions where waste streams from the industry can be used most efficiently
3. Azolla is a fern, therefore its genetic optimal growth condition is under limited light intensities. No extra artificial light is needed for optimal growth
4. Azolla is ubiquitous. It can be grown from high to low latitudes.
5. Azolla produces a very special kind of biomass.
- Protein production yields from Azolla (10-20 tons/acre/year) largely exceeds that of soy bean.
- It produces a high amount of long-chain functionalized lipids, including the Azolla specific omega20-diols
- Azolla makes a special mixture of polyphenols, caffeic acid and many platform chemicals for the chemical industry
Azolla biomass conversion: cradle to cradle
Now is the time to explore cost, efficiency and optimal setup for large-scale Azolla biomass production. The subsequent conversion of this biomass must be arranged so that a cascade of products arise, from proteins via high-value lipids and polyphenol extraction to biochar.