Algae biofuels expertise doesn't always translate to nutraceuticals, expert says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Algae biofuels expertise doesn't always translate to nutraceuticals, expert says

Related tags: Algae fuel

The money pouring into biofuels research has buoyed the algae sector and helped companies get off the ground with technology development and initial facility buildout. But translating that expertise in growing algae at something approaching commercial scale into the manufacture of nutraceutical ingredients has been a challenge, according to an observer.

Greg Sower, PhD is a toxicologist for Environ International, a global human health and environmental risk management firm.  He has consulted with a number of algae companies on regulatory and technical issues as they investigate coming to market with new nutraceutical ingredients.

“When we work with an algae company they often have their scientists and engineers who are very good at getting what they want out of the algae,”​ Sower told NutraIngredients-USA.

“Then you have the C suite which clearly is aware of their business and their opportunities. But often what we have on the algae side is a lack of awareness of how you can get that final product to market, what some of the hurdles are and how those hurdles can be affected by technology,”​ he said.

Fuels expertise doesn't always translate

An ongoing Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program seeks to lessen the strategic reliance of the United States on foreign oil supplies by finding biofuels that can be “dropped in” to the existing military jet fuel supply chain without storage concerns and with acceptable performance in aircraft engines. While these projects have been a boon for algae companies, the expertise doesn’t always translate over cleanly into nutrition, Sower said.

“What we’ve seen here is that were two kinds of a producers.  There were those that were doing algae as a food and as a supplement ingredient right from the start.  And there was always that interest in fuel,”​ he said. “But then there are fuel startups that find that they can get a product to market quicker in the human nutrition or animal feed industries. 

“The biggest hurdle we often come up against (with these latter companies) is good manufacturing practice. I think coming from the biofuels side there isn’t anything really comparable. It’s not just demonstrating the final fuel works and it meets specs; it’s documenting every step along the way,”​ Sower said.

Young sector=high variability

A famous essay by the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould postulated that as systems age, their variability decreases.  Whether its an effusion of species with wildly varying body forms occupying a new ecological niche or batters hitting .400 or pitchers winning 30 games in a season in baseball, these early ‘experiments’ so to speak tend with wither away with time and the systems tend to fall back to a more narrow standard deviation from the mean.

So its seems with algae, too.  The sector is still young, Sower said, and variability is high.  There are fermenters and photosynthesizers, and among this latter group a dizzying variety of open ponds of varying dimensions, closed bioreactors of different designs and a host of extraction methods.

“I think what we are finding is that there is more than one way to do it and to do it well.  Some of the companies we work with actually use multiple technologies depending on what the product is and what the end market is,”​ he said. “One of the nice things about algae is they have developed this ability to scale up while at the same time maintaining flexibility as it relates to the technology.

“It isn’t one size fits all. But that can be a hindrance in coming to market.  These new approaches can present new hazards, and that’s where we come in,”​ he said.

Growth in sales, but perhaps not in companies

The algae sector is just starting to mature, Sower said, and that might have implications for the some of the companies in the sector in coming years.  Strong growth is ahead, he said, but it’s likely that not all of the companies will be around to see it.

“We’d have to be breaking into those teenage years.  But that big growth spurt is still ahead of us. It’s kind of like where the craft beer market was in the early ’90s. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the industry lose some of the players. We will see a few technologies really take hold as the preferred technologies,”​ Sower said.

Sower will be one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Algae Biomass Summit, to be held Sept. 30 to Oct. 3 in Orlando, FL. For more on the summit, click here​.

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