Work has started at the Institute of Technology Sligo on a green technology project that is a key part of a pioneering €60 million Government drive to turn top-class research into commercial realities and new jobs for Ireland.
A panel of international experts examined more than 400 proposals from across the entire third-level academic research sector last year, selecting just one in five for funding.
IT Sligo was among 13 research bodies, including universities and other higher education institutions, which were awarded funding by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the national foundation for investment in scientific and engineering research.
The Government’s overall scientific investment is intended to support 250 research posts in 85 cutting edge research projects nationwide. The aim is to identify and support innovative projects that will produce spin-off benefits in national research priority areas.
IT Sligo’s research, led by Dr. Nicolas Touzet, a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science, is investigating whether certain strains of microscopic algae in estuaries and lakes in the north west of Ireland may have hidden commercial potential. The project has been awarded a €387K support package for a duration of four years.
Dr Touzet, who is from Toulon, in south-east France, has lectured at IT Sligo for the past two years and has carried out research on microalgae for more than a decade, both in France and Ireland.
He is a member of the Institute’s new Centre for Environmental Research Innovation and Sustainability (CERIS), which is focused on developing and increasing research capacity in the areas of applied ecology and resource management.
Dr Touzet says: “Green technologies encompass a range of activities such as biofuel generation, environmental bioremediation or the harvest of high-added value chemicals from natural sources. These research areas have great potential for the creation of highly qualified jobs and the generation of substantial revenue in Ireland.”
As well as being vital for healthy ecosystems because they constitute the basis of the food chain and produce the oxygen that aquatic life uses, some species of microalgae are also used worldwide in commercial applications. These include animal and aquaculture feeds, pharmaceutical compounds for medical sciences and food supplements for human nutrition.
Dr Touzet says: “We want to successfully isolate and grow microalgae that produce chemicals of high biotechnological potential so that the operation can be scaled up on an industrial basis to deliver products to specific market niches.”
The new funding has enabled the creation of two new postgraduate student positions, which have been awarded to Lorraine Archer, who is from Boyle, Co Roscommon, and Donal McGee, from Falcarragh, Co Donegal.
The project also involves external academic and commercial collaborative links. Research into the anti-microbial properties of the microalgae successfully brought into culture will be conducted by the project’s academic collaborator, Dr Gerard Fleming, at his laboratory in NUI Galway. Mr. Franck Hennequart, of Oilean Glas Teoranta (OGT), in Kilcar, Co Donegal, will advise on preliminary processing possibilities and potential marketing opportunities, in his role as industrial collaborator.