When you think of algae, what do you think of? For most people the thought of algae conjures up images of a murky-looking pond. However, algae are one of the largest unexploited resources on our planet. In fact, the world’s ocean could harbour up to 1 million species, depending on who you believe. But we have just barely begun to harvest and cultivate algae for mankind’s benefit. Algae are not just green stuff in the sea, they are complex aquatic organisms that have the ability to conduct photosynthesis.
Algae have been used by human beings for a long time. However, the number of companies developing algae-based biofuels swelled in the 2000s as oil prices rose and supportive policies were established for next-generation biofuels. Yet, when the oil price dropped to record low levels in 2014 to under $35 per barrel a lot of companies went bust, backed away or shifted their interests towards higher value markets, such as health foods, beauty and personal care products, and animal feed.
The use of algae for applications in the nutraceutical, chemicals and cosmetic markets is growing in a world where companies are increasingly seeking alternatives to fossil fuel-based products. As a result of this, algae have come under the spotlight once again. However, the industry has only industrialised a dozen or so of the many variety of algae species, so the opportunities are endless.
So, what opportunities exist? By far, the largest market for algae commercialisation is the nutraceutical and animal feed sector. Today, algae nutraceuticals generate around $0.5bn in revenue annually, according to Bloomberg. In fact, the most valuable products made from algae today are human nutraceuticals such as Omega 3 oils. They can be sold in capsules in health stores or added to food and drink products to enhance their offering. Algae-based food is big business. In Asia, macroalgae - also known as seaweed, is a highly valued resource with more than 30 million tonnes farmed annually, making it one of the largest biomasses harvested from the oceans, according to Jon Funderud, CEO at Norway-based Seaweed Energy Solutions. He says that more than half of this volume goes directly to human consumption as healthy “sea vegetables”, while the remainder has various industrial uses, such as for bioplastics, animal feed or fertilisers. In Europe, seaweeds are virtually unexploited, but have in recent years received a surge in interest both as a new super food and for their potential as a bioenergy crop.
However, there has been no serious industrial efforts at large-scale macroalgae farming because there has been no “off the shelf” farming technology available, Funderud says. He says the vast majority of seaweed farms in Asia are based on very labour-intensive and low tech means, with no real potential for technology transfer to “high-cost countries”. In Europe, the seaweed farming industry is still at pilot scale where the production cost is still really expensive. Seaweed farming is not the only way to address feeding the world’s growing population. Microalgae, small microscopic aquatic photosynthetic plants that require the aid of a microscope to be seen, can also do the job.
Ingmar Høgøy, chairman of Norway-based microalgae technology company AlgaePro (@AlgaePro1), says that microalgae can also provide food security and provide an alternative to dairy and meat-based foods. Matt Carr, executive director of US Algae Biomass Organisation, concurs with Høgøy and says that algae used for nutraceutical sector and animal feed will drive growth for the sector, which in turn will help to produce more large-scale production facilities and a variety of different production methods.
Unique production methods are already being utilised. Scotland-based biotechnology company ScotBio (@ScotBio) is just one firm doing just this, and has been successful in commercialising its natural blue food colourant that is suitable for sweets, ice cream and drinks. It was founded in 2007 and is based on the findings of PhD student, Chelsea Brain, who found that a specific type of red light increased the production of phycocyanin (natural blue pigment) in microalgae spirulina. CEO DC Van Alstyne says the research that is happening in the UK is ground-breaking on many fronts, but many companies in the UK have difficulty commercialising their innovations compared to the US because the US academics tend to get more financial support.
Not just food
In the US, one company that is making waves in the algae-based material space is California-based biotechnology company Checkerspot (@Checkerspot). The company is engineering microalgae to bring high-performance materials to the market. Checkerspot ferments a class of sugar-eating microalgae, called trebouxiophyceae, which swell with fat. The company uses genetic engineering and classical strain improvement to coax the algae to produce useful triglycerides. It is using this feedstock to create the foam used in surfboards and is also working on creating water-repellent coating for outdoor apparel. Another US company that is focusing on algae is oil giant Exxon Mobil. It is working with Synthetic Genomic to conduct a large trial to engineer algae streams in outdoor settings to produce biofuels. In fact, today, most algae are grown outdoors in open pods. In contrast, microalgae can be grown in lab with the help of photobioreactors (a bioreactor that utilises a light source to cultivate phototrophic microorganisms) and steel tanks.
Yet, environmental critics would question whether it was right to genetically engineer these microorganisms for the good of mankind? Carr says: “Using everything that we have already learned in terms of containment, researchers have designed outdoor settings to ensure that they can’t produce the kinds of negative environmental effects that some may fear. You can do that by engineering the organisms so that they can’t survive in natural settings.” He says that algae producers in the US have been working with the US Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that they are designing systems that will not result in any kind of attack on the broader eco system. In relation to the eco system, waste wastewater treatment is emerging as really important trend for algae.
Algae can be added to wastewater or sewage to clean the water. Carole Llewellyn, associate professor in applied aquatic bioscience at Swansea University, says algae can effectively capture and degrade nitrogen and phosphorus in domestic wastewater and clear up metals in mine wastewater streams. All of this looks promising. However, as Llewellyn says: “Harvesting microalgae on a large scale and economically is a challenge. It is less of a challenge where the end product is of high value but for low-value commodities, low-cost harvesting remains a challenge. Some species are naturally self-flocculating. We probably need to understand this process a bit better.” Yet, with only around 12 algae species industrialised, the next step will be to map the algae genome, according to Carr. It really does seem like the world needs to prepare itself for a blue-green revolution.