In light of land and fresh water becoming increasingly scarce, algae’s rich biodiversity and high levels of protein and lipids (Omega3, EPA) lead many to believe in its future potential as a food crop for both people and animals.
Algae are the fastest growing plant organisms in nature and have the ability to convert large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen. There are two broad categories of algae: macroalgae and microalgae.
Macroalgae are seaweeds, like dulse and kelp, they're large and multicellular while Microalgae are generally single-celled organisms.
All species are photosynthetic like plants, using sunlight, carbon dioxide and simple dissolved nutrients to produce a biomass rich in carbohydrates, oils, protein, vitamins and organic minerals. In the absence of light, some algae species can be also be grown directly on organic carbon compounds like sugars and starches. Because they lack stems, roots and leaves algae grow much faster than land plants and can triple or quadruple their biomass every day.
A number of companies see a bright future in microalgae as an alternative protein source in health foods, according to a recent report by NPR. One such company is Solazyme, which converts sugars into oils in closed fermentation tanks with the help of Chlorella microalgae at their site in Brazil.
The oils are than processed for use in a variety of ways from fuel, to personal care, to food. Their food product is currently being marketed under the name AlgaVia and is a high in protein and high in nutrients microalgae powder for use in cooking, baking and smoothies.
Belgium based Tom Algae is a young company which has developed its own microalgal ‘cultivar’ and manufactures’ a freeze dried product exceptionally rich in Omega 3 fatty acids both (EPA and DHA), proteins and vitamins for feed and enrichment source in hatcheries for shrimps.
Their product is a game changer in algae innovation as it can be stored for more than 12 months and can replace the often-unpredictable live feed that is currently used in the industry.
Tomalgae’s production takes place in open raceway ponds inside greenhouses – a proven and scalable controlled environment technology that enables year-round production.
CEO William van der Riet says: “At Tomalgae we often remember algae-biofuels pioneer Dr Benemann’s warning to never ‘count your algae until you actually have them… as everything takes longer than we expect’ – after a few years in business we are happy to say we are now in a situation where we count our algae in tonnes.”
“There is no doubt about algae’s great potential,” says Dr Tim Atack, director of FAI Aquaculture’s Ardtoe Marine Research Facility in Scotland, “however there are lots of challenges to overcome before algae of any kind becomes a mainstream product.”
For microalgae cost of production and the ability to produce enough biomass consistently to be of interest to any large-scale producer are major obstacles to commercialization.
“If you want to offer a viable alternative to readily available plant-based proteins like soy, or replace fish meal and fish oil in feed, you have to be able to produce tens of thousands of tonnes a year– not the hundreds of kilos needed to make an impact on many of the current niche markets for algae.”
Large-scale animal feed production from microalgae protein left after oil extraction could become a profitable venture if algae-oil based biofuels became a large-scale industry. However, in the current energy market this production is not commercially viable.
Mario Tredici, a professor at the University of Florence says microalgae is still too costly to compete with other fuels as well as plant proteins and is convinced that more research into growing it at large scales is needed.
One company that is leading this charge is Alltech which houses one of the world’s largest production and research facilities in Winchester, Kentucky, growing heterotrophic algae in fermentation tanks for use in animal feed.
Due to some of the challenges with scale in using microalgae in large volume production, Dr Atack is directing his immediate R&D work towards macroalgae for human consumption, despite its lower quality in terms of lipids.
“Macroalgae has the potential to be grown cheaply in the sea with no added nutrients and no artificial light,” he says.
While yields have yet to be maximized, he believes production on the 50-100 tonnes wet weight (or 5 to 15 tonnes dry weight) per hectare should be possible to achieve. Ocean Approved is a Maine, US based company “harvesting 33,000 pounds of kelp per acre, which is similar to the yield from an acre of potatoes” which it does without inputs, while improving the environment, and creating habitat for wildlife.
If seaweed could seduce consumers palate, founder Paul Dobbins thinks kelp could make “Americans healthier, while sucking up carbon, building up fish populations, and reviving coastal communities crushed by the collapse of fisheries”.
What is certain is that algae is not yet a food, fuel of feed commodity ready for primetime. While not as headline grabbing as insect-protein, or high-profile investor backed as Hampton Creek’s pea protein, algae’s long list of beneficial qualities makes it a promising candidate as both food and feed for the future.
Judging by the energy and passion of those working to realize the potential of these tiny organisms to help solve some of our biggest challenges, one thing is clear - it is an exciting time to be an algae pioneer.