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July 14, 2024

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Update 2023/1/27

brought to you in part by

Noah Trekker

Algae-Based Superfood Goes Galactic
McGill University’s second DSFC semi-finalist project, the InSpira Photobioreactor transforms spirulina into an edible gel and drink

Suzanne Forcese

A student-led initiative supervised by Mark Lefsrud, Associate Professor in McGill’s Department of Bioresource Engineering evolved under the umbrella of the McGill Advanced bio-Regenerative Toolkit for Long Excursion Trips (MARTLET).

Professor Mark Lefsrud alongside Ilias Hader, and the InSpira Photobioreactor Team inside the Macdonald Campus Food Laboratory with their prototype for producing spirulina-based products.

Interview with Ilias Hader, Bioresource Engineering graduate and project lead

WT: Congratulations on advancing to the semi-finals in the Deep Space Food Challenge! Your team is one of two from McGill University advancing to the list of ten. This certainly underscores the power of student-led innovation

What was there about the Challenge that inspired you to dive in?

Hader: This challenge has been inspiring for several reasons. The Space piece appealed to the dreamers among us who also responded to the plethora of technical challenges, and the creative possibilities of nutritious and delicious food preparations. 

On the food aspect, the Team I’ve led has been founded and is staffed by students and graduates affiliated with the Biomass Production Laboratory. 

There was the potential to take the accumulated knowledge and research already achieved to the next level of the Challenge-- to facilitate outer space exploration and devise solutions to food insecurity in Earth’s remote regions.

 WT: How did you assemble your team? What expertise and qualities were important for this project?

Hader: We started by restricting ourselves to the McGill student body. We wanted to emphasize that universities have a place in challenges such as the DSFC.

We opted for an academic symbiosis where we have students selected for their motivation, self-starting abilities and intuition (essential for proof of concept).

We also looked to McGill’s Biomass Production Lab for answers to logistical questions and ad-hoc technical guidance.

WT: Please tell us about the inSpira Photobioreactor.

Hader: The inSpira Photobioreactor is a novel, automated, modular, and cartridge-based photobioreactor to cultivate microalgae (Spirulina in particular) and turn them into diverse edible products –like smoothies, gnocchi, and pesto, for instance –thanks to in-house growth and processing.

WT: Some of your technology has been inspired by wastewater treatment methods. How did that influence your design?

Hader: The main technical challenge that we faced was that microalgae grow in an aqueous environment. Phase separation is mandatory to gather the harvest and recycle the water and media used for the growth phase.

Centrifugation is currently the method in the wastewater industry. However, it consumes a lot of energy, is impractical, requires manual input, and frankly speaking is a bit ugly.

We’ve relied on the principles of electrochemistry to separate phases within each growth vessel, which is the same principle utilized in wastewater systems to remove microalgae and other macro bodies.

The difference in our system is we have flipped the design to keep the microalgae instead of discarding it.

WT: Why did you choose Spirulina? What are the nutritional advantages? Any other advantages?

Hader: Spirulina has a huge protein content. It’s one of the toughest microorganisms on Earth. It’s rich in carotenoids and vitamins, and the green colour is extremely important to astronauts’ mental well-being.

The other advantage is it’s easy to manipulate/process to turn into diversified food.

It’s extremely versatile and up to now has been mainly used in nutraceutical production. We want to push that further!

WT: What stage are you currently at in the design? What will you be working toward in the next phase of the Challenge?

Hader: Phase 2 has been completed. We have assembled a prototype with all the pieces of the system together and they function together as expected. 

We have mastered the Spirulina growth cycle inside our vessels. 

Next is further process re-engineering, embedding more automated components, and building the full system at scale – a system that is no more than 6 feet tall.

WT: How would you be providing light and water to grow the algae in Space?

Hader: Light is embedded in the system as a photobioreactor is in broad terms a bioreactor with an in-house light source. To optimize growth parameters, we have partnered with an industrial lighting company (UTechnology Corporation) to have a light source in the form of LED bars that minimize power consumption and maximize light penetration in the microalgae.

As for water, the bulk of the water used would be provided by NASA and the CSA. It would be used toward the starter culture.

After that initial input, we would recycle the water through closed loops.

WT: How do you envision your system operating on a Space mission that could be 3-4 years in duration?

Hader: We will ensure that we do not over-engineer any component or subsystem and make it easily replicable. A broken piece can be easily 3D printed. Should there be any software issues, we have a troubleshooting manual. Clean-up is as simple as removing a cartridge and all parts have been created with a choice of materials that would require minimal replacement.

WT: How do you see your system operating on Earth?

Hader: The proposed inSpira technology could be placed in mobile containers or grocery shops which currently exist throughout northern and Indigenous communities. 

Since inputs can be stored for more than 5 years, this system could drastically decrease the cost of producing a continuous supply of fresh and nutritious food.

WT: How has the DSFC reinvented you and your team members?

Hader: I am extremely proud of the team’s work, which built and showcased a system full of technical merit, innovation, and commercial potential.

It has also allowed McGill's MacDonald Campus to gain experience in entrepreneurial projects.

A lot has happened in two years. The Challenge has been an amazing experience for everyone at the intersection of R&D and industrial management. We have become wiser, professionally apt, and above all open-minded.

WT: Is there a message about Space exploration/innovation you would like to impart to our viewers and students?

Hader: Not everyone can be an astronaut, but Space exploration goes beyond that. Health, food production, new technology, software engineering, and astrogeology are all important facets to be explored.

For almost any technical field on Earth, there is a Space equivalent that has the possibility of broadening horizons.

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