Microalgae harvesting is a labor- and energy-intensive process. For instance, classical harvesting technologies such as chemical addition and mechanical separation are economically prohibiting for biofuel production. Newer approaches to harvest microalgae have been developed in order to decrease costs. Among these new methods, fungal co-pelletization seems to be a promising technology. By co-culturing filamentous fungi with microalgae, it is possible to form pellets, which can easily be separated. In this study, different parameters for the cultivation of filamentous fungus (Aspergillus niger) and microalgae (Chlorella vulgaris) to efficiently form cell pellets were evaluated under heterotrophic and phototrophic conditions, including organic carbon source (glucose, glycerol and sodium acetate) concentration, pH, initial concentration of fungal spores, initial concentration of microalgal cells, concentration of ionic strength (Calcium and Magnesium) and concentration of salinity (NaCl). In addition, zeta-potential measurements were carried out in order to get a better understanding of the mechanism of attraction.
It was found that 2 g/L of glucose, a fungus to microalgae ratio of 1:300, and uncontrolled pH (around 7) are the best culturing conditions for co-pelletization. Under these conditions, it was possible to achieve a high harvesting performance (>90%). In addition, it was observed that most pellets formed in the co-culture were spherical with an average diameter of 3.5 mm and in concentrations of about 5 pellets per mL of culture media. Under phototrophic conditions, co-pelletization required the addition of glucose as organic carbon source to sustain the growth of fungi and to allow the harvesting of microalgae. Zeta-potential measurements indicated that (i) both microalgae and fungi have low zeta-potential values regardless of the pH on the bulk (i.e. <-10 mV) (ii) fungi can have a positive electric charge at low pH (ie. pH=3). These values suggest that it might be possible that the degree of repulsion and dispersion between these organisms is low which facilitates the attraction between them.