This is a story about supply and demand.
About a month ago, the United Nations said the human population broke through the 7-billion-person barrier. No one knows where or exactly when this infant took her first breath, but with babies being born at the rate of 50 every minute, India is a good bet.
What’s sure, though, is that that baby, and her siblings, will need to be fed. And, with increasing access to information and a better knowledge of what a body needs for optimum health, as she grows that girl won’t be content with handouts of white rice.
So how to meet this demand? Agricultural capacity has increased fast enough to avoid famine so far, but can it keep pace when the population passes the 8-billion mark, as it is projected to do? And will part of the price be more chemical inputs, more nutrient-rich runoff, more polluted streams and more oceanic dead zones at the mouths of rivers?
Algae makes big impact with small footprint
A possible solution to this huge problem can be found at the smallest of scales, among the many species of algae, nature’s miraculous aquatic unicellular chemical factories. Algae are cultivated in tanks via fermentation or in open ponds or covered “bioreactors” via photosynthesis. Either way, algae are, by a long margin, the most efficient way to produce protein per unit area.
That sustainability cred is part of the story for startup Aurora Algae. Based in Hayward, Calif., Aurora Algae has its initial production facility under construction in northwestern Australia where it has ample sunlight and access to ocean water to cultivate its photosynthetic saltwater species. (A small amount of fresh water input is still needed in processing to rinse the salt from the algae biomass.)
“Our species yields about 40 more times protein per acre than soy,” said Leslie van der Meulen, vice president of business development for Aurora Algae. “It takes 2,500 cubic meters of fresh water to cultivate one ton of soy biomass compared to 25 cubic meters of fresh water per ton of algae biomass.”
Leading companies in algae market
Whole-cell spirulina powders cultivated via photosynthesis have been on the market, mostly in supplement form, for decades, with established producers like Hawaii-based Cyanotech, which also cultivates a saltwater species. Another entrant into this space is Arizona startup Algae BioSciences, which is using saline groundwater for its production facility in the Painted Desert. These whole algae ingredients are still popular products. Florida-based Valensa International recently launched SpiruZan, a product pairing spirulina, with its high protein, vitamin-rich superfood qualities, with haematoccocus, rich in the potent carotenoid astaxanthin. The company has demonstrated the product in pill form, with a blue-green coating comprised primarily of phycocyanins derived from the algae itself. This coating gets around a big drawback for most whole algae ingredients—their strong taste. The whole spirulina products have impressive nutritional profiles, being high in protein and a host of other nutrients.
But the taste—variously described as muddy, “green” or “marine”—seems to limit applications to those dedicated consumers who seek the superfood benefits and are willing to overlook the odd seaweed taste note.
“Taste is and will continue to be king in the food world. Appearance is the queen. While there are niche applications such as dark colored baked products and beverages as initial applications, algal derivatives will be successful in the food industry only when they have neutral taste, aroma, and appearance,” said Kantha Shelke, principal of Chicago-based food consultancy Corvus Blue.
Algae as functional ingredient
Which brings us to the second rung of the algae ladder, the derivation of more focused ingredients from algal sources. Prime among these ingredients are the long-chain fatty acids DHA and EPA. These are present in fish only because they are synthesized in algae first, and work their way up the food chain to be concentrated in fatty fish flesh. The leader in this realm has been Martek (now part of DSM), which has been producing DHA-rich algal oil via fermentation for years. The company also owns the patent on a strain that also produces EPA, featured in a consumer supplement called Ovega-3.
Another large company making news is the field is Solazyme Roquette Nutritionals, the joint venture that pairs the respective algae fermentation and grain processing leaders. The company’s first product—scheduled to hit the market in early 2012—is one that seems to have successfully worked around the taste issues. Dubbed Whole Algalin Flour, the powdered ingredient can replace fat in many food formulations, from brownies to beverages.
“You can use it just like an egg,” said Jodie Morgan, who is president of the joint venture. “Instead of thinking of it as just as a replacement for fat, it’s really a replacement for a portion of your formulation system.”
The company takes the whole cells and cracks them open to release the lipids within, a process similar in concept to the one that Martek pioneered. The joint venture is also developing a high-protein ingredient with plans for launch in mid-2012.
Aurora Algae, too, has its eye on the protein market, with its A2 product line that includes a protein-rich powder ingredient and an EPA-rich oil offering. The company’s process allows it to simultaneously produce nutraceutical ingredients and oil that can be turned into fuel. And it’s a technology that can easily be scaled up to meet demand, Van der Meulen said.
And it’s that production flexibility that allows algae producers the ability to shift gears to meet market demands. Algal species, whether those grown via photosynthesis or fermentation, share similar growing requirements, so producers can shift production toward meeting the sudden spike in astaxanthin demand, for example, or can move toward more protein or oil production.
Algae powers aircraft
The big pot at the end of the algae rainbow is filled with biofuel. Research dollars from the US government have been flowing into the biofuels sector in recent years.
The U.S. military’s insatiable need for fuel drives much of the investment in the sector. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a stated goal of obtaining 50 percent of military fuel needs from renewable sources by 2016, primarily as national security insurance against a potential cutoff of foreign oil supplies. Early in November, the world’s first commercial jet took flight fired by Solzayme’s Solafuel, a 40/60 blend of algae-based fuel and traditional petroleum-based jet fuel.
Do algal fuels make sense from a sustainability standpoint? The jury’s out. Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., who recently explored the issue in an article in American Scientist magazine, said the calculations to answer that question are notoriously imprecise. “They are especially difficult for algal biofuels because so many of the values needed for the calculations are available only as estimates or assumptions,” the authors said.