Bioeconomy Science Center
Forschung und Kooperation für nachhaltige Bioökonomie

Bioeconomy Science Center
Forschung und Kooperation für nachhaltige Bioökonomie
BOOST FUND Projekt AlgalFertilizer

Algae delivering waste phosphorus to soil and crops


Phosphorus (P) is a finite non-renewable resource, a major nutrient for plants, and a foundation of modern agriculture. Nevertheless, the efficiency of P usage today hardly reaches 20% with the rest ending in wastewater or carried away by runoff from fields to rivers and to the oceans. In this project, we will investigate the potential to close the cycle from waste back to agriculture by exploiting the capability of microalgae to accumulate large P quantities. This potential of algae for a ‘luxury P uptake’ will be combined with the benefit of delayed release of P from the algal biomass applied as a fertilizer to soil. To achieve our goal, we shall a) systematically investigate the capability of microalgal strains of the species Chlorella vulgaris to sequester P from wastewater effluent, b) study how P in algae-derived, P-rich fertilizer deploys to the soil and is taken up by plants, comparing the efficiency with traditional fertilizers, c) discover the molecular mechanisms underlying luxury P uptake and storage in algae and d) develop mathematical models providing a theoretical framework in which to interpret our experimental findings, to derive a systemic understanding of the P cycle, and to develop future strategies to optimize the results obtained during the lifetime of our project.


Rootsystem of a wheat plant in a rhizotron (left), radioactive isotope of phosphorus (33P) visualized by bioimager (right).

Impact on Bioeconomy
A key goal of bioeconomy is the changeover from a fossil-resource economy to a sustainable one, relying on naturally re-growing resources. Our project focuses on phosphorus (P), which is essential for all agriculture and is currently mined from geographically constrained and limited phosphate rock deposits. We aim at using photoautotrophic microalgae for economically viable and environmentally sustainable recycling of P and other nutrients from wastewater effluent to plant fertilizer. In this way, waste will be converted into fertilizer for crop production by an energetically optimized photobioreactor. Our project has the potential to establish a completely novel branch of bioeconomy, focusing on phosphate resource management. Supplementing the already established production of kerosene by microalgae, our project contributes to the economic viability of algal biotechnology. By increasing the energy efficiency of the phosphate extraction process and algal fertilizer production, the CO2 footprint and energy requirements will be significantly reduced, economic viability increased and thus a transition towards a sustainable agriculture not based on limited resources supported. The project will provide a knowledge base for a potential new technology that can significantly reduce the losses of phosphate from wastewater effluent and return it to crop production.

Expected results/ project products
Our project generates synergistic effects enhancing the complementarity of algal biotechnology and agriculture, by using the algal infrastructures for solar-driven recycling of phosphate and other nutrients from wastewater effluent to produce crop fertilizers.

Participating Core Groups
Jun.-Prof. Oliver Ebenhöh,
Quantitative und Theoretische Biologie, HHU Düsseldorf
Dr. Ladislav Nedbal / Dr. Nicolai D. Jablonowski / Prof. Ulrich Schurr, IBG-2, Forschungszentrum Jülich 
Dr. Nina Siebers / Dr. Diana Hofmann/ Prof. Harry Vereecken, IBG-3, Forschungszentrum Jülich
Dr. Tabea Mettler-Altmann, Biochemie der Pflanzen, HHU Düsseldorf
Prof. Wulf Amelung, INRES Bodenwissenschaften, Universität Bonn

Jun.-Prof. Oliver Ebenhöh
Quantitative und Theoretische Biologie
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Tel: +49 211 81-02922

Project duration

Funding budget
The total budget of AlgalFertilizer is € 698.252. AlgalFertilizer is part of the NRW-Strategieprojekt BioSC and thus funded by the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Research of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Solovchenko, A., Verschoord, A.M., Jablonowskic, N.D., Nedbal, L. (2016) Phosphorus from wastewater to crops: An alternative path involving microalgae. Biotechnology Advances doi:10.1016/j.biotechadv.2016.01.002