New entrant set to shake up algal omega-3 market

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Ayers: 360 days of sunlight
Ayers: 360 days of sunlight

Related tags: Omega-3 fatty acid, Docosahexaenoic acid, Epa

A new player is poised to enter the vegetarian omega-3 market with a production process it claims will enable it to make the long chain fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) from algae at a fraction of the cost of rivals.

Biotech firm Algae Biosciences Corporation claims its production site near Holbrook in Arizona creates “near perfect”​ growing conditions for microalgae because it sits above an underground salt dome that interacts with the Coconino Aquifer, a vast ancient underground sea - to produce “pristine​” saline groundwater.

This is remarkably pure, protected from sources of pollution, and the perfect medium for growing marine algae, claims the firm, which will be able to make commercial quantities of oil containing EPA and DHA from the beginning of 2012.

Patent protection

AlgaeBio, which is listed on the Canadian TSX Venture Exchange, also has a patent (U.S. Patent No. 6,986,323) that gives it the exclusive right to culture marine species from the Coconino Aquifer, as well as other inland saline aquifers.

As it can adjust the saline content of its source water, it can produce a wider and more diverse variety of algae strains than competitors, while there is no need to remove contaminants from the water, because there aren’t any, chief executive Andy Ayers told NutraIngredients-USA.

Feedback from potential customers testing product – which AlgaeBio is currently making in small amounts for sampling purposes – had been so positive that customers had already committed to buying everything it could produce for some years, he claimed.

Longer term the firm –which is pumping $5m into its Arizona facility to scale up production capabilities - may also explore the viability of producing carotenoids such as astaxanthin, focoxanthin and zeaxanthin, pharmaceutical products and sustainable biofuels, he added.

360 days a year of high intensity sunlight

The best-known producer of omega-3s from algae is Martek Biosciences (now part of DSM), which has historically focused on DHA but has recently launched DHA-O, a product sourced from a strain of algae containing both EPA and DHA.

Its oils are produced in a heterotrophic (in absence of sunlight) batch process via fermentation in big vats to which sugar, water and salt are added to help the algae grow before it is then harvested and dried. The oil is then recovered using high pressure homogenization and solvent extraction or an enzymatic process (depending on the microalgae type).

By contrast, said Ayers, AlgaeBio uses a different species of algae that grows via photosynthesis (autotrophic process) in a natural salt water aquifer using a continuous closed loop system benefiting from all-year-round sunlight.

“We have 360 days a year of high-intensity sunlight – which is free – while the temperatures are also very consistent.

“We don’t have to buy in salt, water and sugars and instead of using a solvent such as hexane we use supercritical carbon dioxide extraction. This means our oils contain EPA and DHA but also nutrients that protect the oil from oxidation.”

Supplements and functional foods

AlgaeBio will initially supply the dietary supplements market but will go on to target the functional food industry as well, said Ayers.

Chairman Bob Thompson added: “Thanks to a wide array of factors, AlgaeBio enjoys a clear economic advantage over its competitors in terms of production costs."

AlgaeBio had started the process of securing self-affirmed Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status, added Thompson.

"The bottom line — between our patent, our proprietary information, and our intellectual property — is that we can produce a wide array of high-value algae-based products at a fraction of the cost of our competitors.”

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