Hundreds of thousands of species of micro-algae float through the world’s waterways. Just a fraction have been categorised or studied. It leaves an imaginarium of possibilities to explore.
For decades, the hottest and most tantalising possibility centered round biofuels. Since then, other dreams have bubbled to the fore. Some recognise micro-algae as potential alternatives to proteins. Others reckon they can replace plastics. On top of that, they are nutritious animal feed supplements. And they could even capture lots of carbon.
After all, even without ingenious human production systems, micro-algae are crucial on the carbon front. Together, they absorb more carbon dioxide and produce far more oxygen than the world’s rainforests.
So French President Emmanuel Macron and others were wrong: algae, much more than the Amazon, are the real “lungs of the earth.” Besides, these tiny things are a vital life source in many other ways, positioned right at the base of the food web.
From lungs of the earth, to noxious nuisance
Less positively, they also have a spectacular yet terrifyingly toxic capacity to “bloom.” This process tends to be a result of over-applied fertilizer seeping into water systems, changing climates and high pollution levels, and so is widely disparaged in the news media. In China over the last few summers, for instance, algal blooms have turned the Yellow Sea green and blue, creating “dead zones.” There are many similar dead zones in the US too. A good article on how to treat them can be found here. And if you need a warning of where they are about to bloom, there are companies like Norway’s Dynaspace that are training algorithms to detect these from multi-spectral satellite imagery.
Threats of dangerous blooms aside, micro-algae’s prodigious capacity for carbon capture is sparking a lot of interest, at least from eccentric designers. One recent example, as cities seek new ways of filtering out air pollution, is ecoLogicStudio architects Marco Poletto and Claudia Pasquero. The pair have been turning micro-algae into “bio-curtains.”
As engineering techniques improve and governments exert pressure on manufacturers to reduce their emissions, there’ll be many more weird and wonderful early-stage ideas like these. Earlier this month, for instance, I spoke to Vasilis Stenos, a Greek engineer and founder. His early-stage startup Solmeyea collaborates with carbon dioxide-emitting manufacturers. Its vision is to funnel factory emissions into a farm of micro-algae. This not only offsets pollutants. It also speeds the growth of micro-algae as a byproduct. He plans to sell this as food colorants, proteins, animal feed, pigments, or carotenoids. “Our exclusive purification process gives us the competitive advantage,” says Stenos, describing his company’s “elaborately automated” micro-algae harvesting process to AFN.
Decades of false biofuel dawns later, a new dawn?
The ideas of founders like Stenos — often quirky, intuitive and potentially world-changing — continue to flounder in the face of enduring investor skepticism. At the annual Algae Biomass Summit in Orlando, Florida, this was one of the recurring laments. The cold shoulder is not about investors suffering from myopia (though it is partly). Deeper reasons lie beneath micro-algae investments being a cautionary tale. Soaring oil prices after the Yom Kippur War in the 1970s helped open wallets and elicit wishful thinking. Billions of dollars flew into micro-algae. The hope was they would become the biofuel that weans the world off its fossil fuel dependency. These hopes turned out to be just that — hopes. So even to this day, micro-algae remain unable to compete on price, by far.
Giants like ExxonMobil have been doubling down once more. The multinational is teaming up with Synthetic Genomics to target 10,000 barrels of algae biofuels per day by 2025. “Algae can yield more biofuel per acre than plant-based biofuels – currently about 1,500 gallons of fuel per acre, per year,” the company says. “That’s almost five times more fuel per acre than from sugar cane or corn.” The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley is a little more circumspect; it underscores the continued need for long-term research and development before things get close to the competitiveness of fossil fuels — a stance shared by energy companies like BP, which take more of a wait and see approach.
The biofuel rush has defined the nature of algae farming infrastructure as well, for better or worse. Micro-algae have largely been cultivated through several competing methods with biofuels initially in mind; most of which harness the sunlight on open ponds. Geographically, many of these are dotted across the US, China, Japan, Canada, and Australia. These often came into existence with the help of subsidies.
Geothermal carbon capture
In Canada, a company to watch could be Pond Technologies and its Stelco Lake Erie Works facility in Ontario. In April, Inventiv Capital Management (ICM) agreed to provide over $5 million for Phase 1 of the Stelco Project and up to $11 million for Phase 2. The balance of the project financing was secured from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and Pond. When completed, the company says, the Stelco Project is expected to produce 3,500 Metric tonnes of algae. The company hopes it will sequester approximately 6,300 Metric tonnes of CO2 per year. Algae biomass from this facility can be used for high-protein feed for fish and livestock, the company says. Or, as a renewable feedstock for pigments. Bio-plastics are another option. Pond has already completed process engineering and is currently commissioning its first algae bioreactor for this project.
Some examples of other existing infrastructure in Japan are operated by companies like Virent, Solazyme, Terravia, and Euglena. (This June, Euglena signed a deal with Itochu Corp to use microalgae for carbon capture from geothermal power plants.) In Europe, there’s Austria’s Ecoduna, Germany’s Phytolutions, Italy’s Archimede Ricerche, and Proviron in Belgium. All these companies use thin plastic films, flat panels or glass tubes. Tubular photobioreactors are used by Spanish companies like AlgaEnergy, Algasol and Fitoplancton Marino, as well as by Roquette in Germany and A4F in Portugal.
Open pond or bioreactor?
Often, the debate gets heated over whether to go open pond or build bioreactors. “This is whether you are thinking biomass or human consumption,” explains Max Blanshard, a life sciences specialist at L.E.K Consulting.
“Open ponds are generally for biomass due to cheapness,” he writes, “but can get contaminated easily and you do not get the same high density of algae. Bioreactors are expensive, but you can grow algae at much higher densities and avoid contamination.”
In the US, among the big news of 2019 in the biorefinery space was the opening of a new plant in Nebraska by Veramaris, a joint venture of DSM and Evonic. The plant, which opened in July in front of Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, cost $200 million. The company reckons the price tag is worth it; the intellectual property behind the production technology, the algae strain Schizochytrium ssp. and the downstream processes are all protected by patents, the company says. Due to its fermentation process, the company adds in a statement sent to AFN, its algal oil is “free from sea-borne contaminants and unique for its pristine quality 365 days a year. The full traceability of the raw materials used, and the transparent production process provides peace of mind for the consumer.”
Bene-fish-ial alternative proteins
Large scale algae production is enticing for fish farmers. Their reliance on soy is troublesome; so is the ecologically rapacious practice of feeding their huge fish populations a meal that uses crops like soy combined with depleting wild fish stocks like krill or anchovies. Getting away from this dismal habit while keeping their produce both affordable and filled with nutrients is not easy, but micro-algae is potentially coming to the rescue. The aquaculture industry needs novel and sustainable sources of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — two types of omega 3 which are important for the salmon’s nutritional health and which feeds through to the consumer. Veramaris’ production capacity is equivalent to 1.2 million tons of wild-catch fish. This will meet around 15% of the entire salmon farming industry’s annual demand. It could help conserve the biodiversity in our oceans and reduce pressure on marine wild-catch fisheries.
Just this September, Corbion, a major global player in algae-based ingredients headed this way. It made a deal with BioMar, which works on sustainable aquaculture feeds. The pair unveiled a new feed partnership with the Norwegian-based Salmon Group, the world’s largest network of local, family-owned fish farming and aquaculture companies.
The partnership is a template of what many aquaculture deals in the future could look like. Watched over by governments and environmental activists, Salmon Group has a goal of reducing its overall environmental footprint of feed; it wants to do so while maintaining feed quality, feed performance and fish welfare. BioMar is getting there by developing a bespoke feed that maintains high omega-3 levels (EPA + DHA) in the feed. That reduces the carbon footprint, and significantly reduces the fish-in, fish-out ratio and contamination of pollutants. BioMar used, among other ingredients, AlgaPrime™ DHA. The first farmed salmon fed on the new recipe are set to reach the market by the end of 2019.
Global Sustainability director at BioMar, Vidar Gunderson, lays it out nicely. “As demand for sustainable food options is hitting a critical mass, key industry players in food service and retail are increasingly relying on their supply chains to improve their environmental impact,” says Gunderson. “The use of alternative feed ingredients, such as algae-based omega-3s, is an important part of the effort to address sustainability issues within the salmon industry and beyond.”
A foretaste of genetic engineering and a blooming market
“An interesting development here is the use of micro-algae for genetic engineering,” said Blanchard of L.E.K Consulting. “They are a useful platform that several groups in the US and Europe are working on, with the goal that they can be fed directly to the person (e.g. oral vaccine). This is also of interest for fish, as there is a particular need to vaccinate fish farms orally and with low cost vaccines. That’s still a long way off though.”
Even without the luring prospect of genetic engineering, there are plenty of applications of algae-neering to crack on with. There’s water purification; alternative human protein sources; pharmaceutical ingredients; cosmetics; animal, insect or fish feed replacements or nutritional supplements; biodegradable textiles; and finally, “biodegr-edible plastics.”
According to the latest report published by Credence Research “Global Algae Products Market – Growth, Future Prospects and Competitive Analysis, 2018-2026,” the global algae products market was valued at $ 32.6 billion in 2017, expected to grow at a CAGR of 5.8% from 2018 to 2026. A dozen or so species are well-known entities with existing regulatory pathways to market and everyday use cases; others are untried and untested outside the world of academia. Plenty more could be floating somewhere in the Pacific, perhaps a hitherto undiscovered ingredient base for the next Beyond Meat burger. Take note: plant-based protein makers like Beyond or Impossible have been anxious to find a way to wean themselves off their current heavy reliance on soy, peas or sesame.
The next generation of Texan steaks
One way could be through a reinvention of the classic Texan steak. The lone star state is more known for its gigantic cattle ranches. But it is also the site of a major micro-algae play which hints at the next generation of steaks, according to iWi CEO Miguel Calatayud. His Austin-based micro-algae startup has been in talks with major alternative protein producers, he says; but for now, he is focused on creating tasty snacks and healthy dietary supplements rich in Omega-3. These could replace the more environmentally problematic cod liver oil supplements. Calatayud’s offering comes from Nannochloropsis grown in his facilities in Texas and Arizona. Thanks to a tie up with ADM, his supplements are at 13,000 stores — and these can replace environmentally damaging cod liver oil supplements. His protein bars, Calatayud tells AFN, will be on shelves by the end of the year.
The advantage, he adds, is that deserts have lots of salty water that is traditionally not helpful for most farming practices, but is “ideal for algae.” This comes as the world population grows, and desertification threatens and restricts farmland across the planet, he says; in response, algae could be a less resource-intensive way to produce complex, nutritious protein chains. A potential clue for what farming in the desert could look like.
Another way to farm in the desert, and what the fucoxantin?
Any way to farm in the desert is bound to get Israel’s thriving agtech sector interested. And little surprise, new micro-algae growing techniques were easy to spot during my September visit to Israel’s AgriFood Week. With help from the Israeli incubator Trendlines, I unearthed and examined companies like Algatech, Algalo and AlgaHealth.
“Most of the veteran companies are focused on producing astaxanthin,” explains Sarai Kemp of Trendlines, referring to the antioxidant that gives salmon its pinkish colour. “The industry is now shifting production into fucoxanthin, a more lucrative product.” Recent studies show how fucoxanthin has health benefits that could limit obesity, diabetes and the spread of tumors, as well as being good for the brain and the heart.
Due to the climate, growing conditions outdoors would seem ideal in Israel; yet paradoxically, Brevel prefers to turn its back on the sun. Their design shoulders greater costs from LED lighting and indoor farming to guarantee greater climate controls and precise growing conditions. A case study for the bioreactor approach.
High-tech indoor, sterile and fully automated photo-bioreactors are illuminated from within at high intensity. They produce, the team says, microalgae at yields per land 200 times higher and more than 90% cheaper than the current state of the art: “Medium-scale prototypes operate at performances much higher than expected and the industrial scale-up is set to Q4 2019.”
In an emailed note to AFN, Yonatan Golan, CEO of Brevel, explained how his company plans to raise funds to enter into the next stage of mass production and tap into different markets, starting with its own feed supplement for salmon: “We are focused on breaking through the technological barrier which is limiting the micro-algae industry from reaching its potential in becoming the future of our food and nutrition as well as many other products.”
Food waste and algae gold
I’ll finish these algae scribblings on a forward-looking note. I’m currently in Singapore, where I’m continuing my mapping of the micro-algae innovation space. Earlier this year, Sophie’s Kitchen won an award here from the Temasek Foundation for its algae-based alt-crab, winning a $1m “liveability” prize. I tasted this at the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Week. It was excellent; much better than the alt-prawn and alt-salmon.
Other signs of al-chemy round here are among companies like Triton Algae Innovations, or Singapore’s new Aquaculture Innovation Center. There’s also a healthy amount tucked neatly within the latest Singapore cohort of GROW, AgFunder’s accelerator in partnership with Rocket Seeder.
One of the GROWhort is Back of the Yards algae sciences (BYAS). It has similar plans to Brevel of staying indoors, but with an ulterior aim of using algae to drive down food waste. “On average, our products are made up of 50%-75% protein. That means we can meet 50% of your daily protein needs with just a few drops of our product in a simple glass of water,” Rob Agterberg, partner of BYAS, told AFN previously. “We want to work towards a future, where a leftover piece of food could turn into the meat we would eat tomorrow. This is why we have developed an algal stimulant to help cell-based products grow faster, get more yield, better shelf life, and flavor. We’re also working on an algal product that cleans soil. It stimulates bacterial growth that cleans up diesel-contaminated soil. It’s a good benchmark to test if soil is clean or not…. We’re also cooking up several products to enter the food chain, such as coloring, flour-based on our algae, and ‘algal gold’, which according to people who tested it, tastes of pure umami.”
One hope for Agterberg, who kindly offered a bright blue micro-algae drink that he promised would boost this reporter’s vitality, was that with the greater interest in algae would come more detailed science and algae banks to store and analyse diverse species. Otherwise, humanity would be none the wiser if some of the more obscure species ever became extinct.
But on a more positive side, heading into the unknown was a good place to be, he said.
“We’re like Columbus,” he said, his eyes turning back to his two small pots of green and blue algal powder.
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