Special edition: Algae

Expert says algae's promise still huge despite disappointments in ingredient development

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Astaxanthin production has been a success story in the algae sector.
Astaxanthin production has been a success story in the algae sector.

Related tags Algae

Algae companies have a habit of over promising and under delivering. According to one longtime expert in the field, that’s almost by default, resulting from the organisms’ almost unlimited potential and the limited ability of current technology to realize that promise.

Algae’s promise is there for anyone to see—the stuff grows faster than any other plant and is present in the environment in myriad forms with different chemical compositions. But harnessing that power has proven much more difficult than many entrepreneurs realized, according to Mark Edwards, an emeritus agribusiness professor at Arizona State University who has devoted his career to fostering algae development. 

Edwards said his interest in algae started from the bottom—or better put, keel—up. As a student at the US Naval Academy in 1966, where he had enrolled in a nascent oceanography program initiated by Jacques Cousteau, Edwards was assigned to scrape the bottom of boats. The next day, the algae had repopulated a scraped section, and Edwards said he had an epiphany.

“I was greeted with a thick layer of algae that had regrown on the keel. I said, why grow corn for food when algae grows more than 30 times faster?”​ Edwards told NutraIngredients-USA.

Algae has a history of use in the food supply that potentially stretches back as long as organized human activity. Edwards, who is active in the Algae Biomass Organization, has in the past postulated that dried algae harvested from ponds may have formed the first on the go, convenience food, as well as being a source of fertilizer and medicine. But it was the organized farming of cereal grains that led to the development of the first cities in the Middle East and in China, and terrestrial agriculture has predominated since. 

Near term promise

Edwards believes that is about to change. In his view, algae-derived foods and ingredients will at some point in the coming decade do the following:

  • Algae-based medicines are likely to replace many of the 80% of medicines currently derived from plants and animals, because algae-based medicines grow faster and deliver more of the target compounds.  The same goes for algae as a source of many dietary ingredients and ingredients for cosmetics.
  • Algae-based nutrients will become the primary input source for functional foods that deliver immediately bioavailable vitamins, minerals and nutraceuticals in natural foods.
  • Algae derived omega-3’s, astaxanthin and other antioxidants will replace fish oil with a healthy, vegan alternative to harvesting massive amounts of fish for minute amounts of oil
  • Several algae species will replace soybeans and corn with higher-quality, gluten-free, higher protein power drinks, bars and texturized vegetable protein products.
  • Macro and micro algae snack products will provide a low calorie, high taste, texture and protein alternative that will continue to take market share from potato, corn, soya and other snack forms.
  • Algae-based alternative meats including: beef, poultry, pork and fish will become market leaders far before consumers seriously consider insect-based protein products.
Prof Mark Edwards, PhD

So the promise is there, and Edwards is far from the only proponent. But reality falls far short of that promise. Omega-3s, especially DHA from fermentation organisms, have a solid position and EPA from photosynthetic algae is starting to show up on the market. The market for astaxanthin from algae continues to thrive, and there is solid demand for whole spirulina and chlorella products. But as for the rest of this vast promise, the wayside is littered with broken algae dreams, with the corpses of companies that touted newly identified, exciting organisms or growing technologies and harvesting and extraction techniques. Why, given this glittering potential, has it proven to be so hard for developers to bring algal ingredients to market?  

Biofuel detour

One underlying issue in Edwards’ opinion is the way in which Defense Department funding was used to jumpstart the sector in past decades. Before fracking came on the scene to greatly boost domestic hydrocarbon production, there was a great deal more angst in military planning circles about fuel stockpiles in the event of a protracted conflict that might interrupt oil deliveries.  Several government funded programs successfully achieved the endpoint of deriving jet fuel and other fuels from algae (at great cost, it should be noted), and injected a technological jumpstart into the sector as a bonus. But that benefit didn’t spread very far, Edwards said. 

“Military investments for liquid transportation fuels have been highly beneficial to the algae industry. Unfortunately, in spite of the federal grant requirements to share the findings of as well as the promises by the executives of the federally funded firms, few of the innovations funded by federal monies have trickled down to other members of the industry. Most of the intellectual property developed with federal money remains locked in corporate files, which benefits few firms but not the algae industry or academic and institutional scientists,”​ he said.

The algal biofuel boom faded as it became clear that the fuels would not be able to compete on the open market in a sector so rigidly locked in to commodity pricing and in which the underlying metric—the price of crude oil—had declined so precipitously. After all, most fuel consumers don’t care where the stuff comes from; they only care if it burns properly and it’s the right price.

Difficult pivot

So algal firms that got their start in fuels tried to pivot to deriving dietary ingredients from their organisms. Most failed, because they did not appreciate how different the requirements were, Edwards said.

“The demands for nutraceutical purity and production reliability are very different from the quality requirements for liquid transportation fuels. The production of high quality algae bioproducts has surprised many companies due to the high requirements for biotechnology skills and investment,”​ Edwards said.

Among the main reasons for these failures, Edwards put forward the following:

  • Mission drift, as firms start with a focus on the production of one target compounds such as oil for energy and then change to foods, feeds, fertilizers, nutraceuticals, cosmeceuticals or medicines.
  • Economics, as executives or scientists over promise productivity or yield metrics that are not achievable short-term.
  • Technical reality, as challenges occurred in species selection, cultivation, harvesting, compound extraction or processing.
  • Scale, as the requirements for production size may require scale up beyond the financial means of many startup organizations.

Believing in the promise

Despite all of the potential downsides, Edwards said he still firmly believes in algae’s potential. 

 “The algae industry has a long history of over promising and under delivering because it’s so easy to grow weed algae yet relatively difficult to grow high-quality algae with precisely the target compounds desired,” ​Edwards said.

“In summary, Mother Nature has not given up her algae secrets easily. I remain enthusiastically optimistic about the algae industry. Within five years, consumers will have algae bioproduct choices in nearly every food category. Algae foods can be produced as ‘freedom foods,’ free of consumption of fertile soil, freshwater, fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizers or agricultural pesticides or poisons. These foods will deliver superior nutrition and taste without pollution or waste,”​ he said.

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executive director

Posted by barry cohen,

2015 Algae Year in Review

Another year has gone by and again no change in the Congressional mandate that only supports algae research and not commercial deployment or commercial production of algae biofuels. This has nothing to do with the current price of a barrel of oil. It has to do with two things - the outdated Congressional mandate that requires that the funding only be used for more algae research and technologies and that the grants be paid to universities, and with greed, avarice and self-serving interests on the part of those who have access to government grants.

Have the games being played by the government, university researchers, lobbyists and pay-for-play media helped or hindered algae fuels from ever becoming a reality?

For decades, algae researchers have all used the same mantra: Algae for fuel was too costly, it could not yet be done and they needed more research. They and their lobbyists were successful in convincing the Department of Energy to continue to fund their research projects for decades. Some have made entire careers out of either asking for or awarding grants, and we, the taxpayer, have nothing but rooms and rooms full of unproven fuel technologies to show for their time and effort. Despite reading numerous embellishments issued in what National Algae Association calls the ‘pay-to-play media’ press releases, taxpayers, investors and consumers that have read all the algae fuels press releases continue to ask:

Whatever happened to the promised algae fuels?

NAA is convinced that at this point, the failure of cultivating algae for biofuels has nothing to do with the price of fossil fuels. It has nothing to do with lowering the costs. It’s all politics!!! It’s just one on a never-ending list of good excuses. What about 18 months ago, when the price of oil was over $100 per barrel? The reality is that it has to do with the fact that the funding for algae as an alternative fuel has been hijacked by Department of Energy research funding programs that has been, in our humble opinion, misled by its leadership, misguided by its advisors, bought by lobbyists and never held accountable for anything. It led the US taxpayer to believe its mission was to reduce dependency on foreign oil, and told Congress that is what it was working on, but that has neglected to mention that the funds it controls are restricted to research and development and to be paid to groups involving, and frequently led by, institutions of higher education. What about the successful algae fuel tests in commercial airlines and in automobiles? The Department of Energy has refused, despite repeated requests by NAA, private industry and some past research grant recipients, to ask Congress to update the mandate to accommodate today’s private industry needs, not those of 1976 when the mandate was enacted. In other words, you, Congress, the President and I might think they are funding efforts to produce algae for alternative fuels. But, it still remains R&D never reaching commercial scale deployment.

Private industry (not researchers and lobbyists who have no training or experience) have already lowered the CAPEX for the industry. One would conclude private industry should have involvement of writing industrial standards for the algae production industry (not researchers and lobbyists with no experience or training). Shouldn’t private industry be involved in these processes, since they are taking all the risk? Are algae researchers running out of things to research?

The reality is that they are only funding for research and development, and only at or through institutions of higher education (we could call it the ‘prop up the universities’ act). Not only is there no incentive for the researchers to commercialize their technologies, but the funds cannot be used for that purpose, and the Department of Energy has proven time after time that it is not equipped to manage the projects it funded, let alone commercialize anything. The results of the projects that were funded speak for themselves and are dismal at best. Most of the projects that were funded in 2008 – 2010 were fully funded, but very few were completed. Entire management teams have been replaced. The beauty of the situation for the grant recipients as well as the people making and monitoring the awards on behalf of the Department of Energy are not held accountable or responsible. It’s been a win-win for them, all at the expense of the US taxpayer. …… Where are the promised algae biofuels from companies like Sapphire Energy (“the golden child”) who in 2009 claimed they would be producing 1 million gallons of diesel and jet fuel per year and in January 2010 were awarded a $50 million grant by DOE and a $54.5 million loan guarantee from USDA to substantiate these claims), Solazyme, General Atomics, Algenol, Solix Biofuels, Aurora Biofuels, Synthetic Genomics, Phycal, the government labs like NREL and Sandia, and the universities? In 2010, Solazyme was able to deliver 100% algae-based jet fuel to the Department of Defense and received millions from the DoE for the construction of an integrated biorefinery project. The fuel allegedly met all of the requirements for Naval renewable fuel, aviation fuel, and purportedly met the fuel requirements of the US Air Force and the standards for commercial jet fuel. So, where is it 5 years later? Several companies have replaced all or most of their management teams, but, with all due respect……….

Algae for fuels has apparently run its course. It was hijacked by the DOE Algae Biomass Program/BETO, university researchers and their lobbyists. It was never supposed to be a never-ending research project. Now the focus of private industry has changed from algae fuels to focus on biobased co-products. Why? … Because the available funding was not made available to private industry for the commercial production of algae fuels. The few legitimate commercial algae producers (not the hundreds of algae producers referred to by to the Washington lobbyists, none of whom have been able to substantiate that claim) decided to commercialize and deploy or algae co-products first as a way to increase profit margins due to projected low margin fuels but also as of necessity of survival, not by choice but in attempts to diversify into other potential revenue opportunities. Private investors are coming back into the market looking for commercial algae producers who can supply diversified raw materials for co-products, and ingredient blenders who read glorious press releases are interested in algae for nutraceutical Omega 3 EPA/DHA, cosmetics, food, feed and bioplastics. Others in private industry are interested in sequestering CO2 or cleaning wastewater using algae. They are tired of hearing the same old hype and embellishments. They want to see results!

That is why NAA created the Algae Biomass Exchange on Linkedin as a platform for legitimate commercial algae producers throughout the US and the World to meet potential biomass or oil off-takers/customers with specific needs and specs. The Algae Biomass Exchange has received very positive feedback from around the world resulting in new connections between real commercial algae producers and potential new off-takers/customers with specific specs and requirements. Every month new algae biomass becomes available, needs and requirements are updated from around the world. Whether a commercial algae producer is commercially cultivating Botryococcus braunii, Chlorella, Dunaliella, Haematococcus pluvialis, Nannochloropsis, Spirulina, Scenedesmus microalgae or Euglena gracilis or any other macroalgae, the Algae Biomass Exchange on Linkedin can assist in helping to build various legitimate supply channels for real commercial algae producers.

NAA interacts with algae companies in the US and around the World that are in commercial algae production, capable of providing samples of algae biomass with Certificates of Analysis. When we receive samples we verify by US-based third-party labs before posting availability on the Algae Biomass Exchange.

Every month we encounter the cast of ‘algae wanna be’s’ – people who want investors and connections but are producing more unsubstantiated press releases than algae or investment money. NAA only aligns with algae producers committed to the algae production industry and nothing less. Our members are dedicated in commercial production and building out new supply channels for algae and have no time for the fraudsters. Over the last decade we have witnessed people breaking NDA’s and running scams all to find investment. This cannot stand. More due diligence needs to be conducted in private industry on people purporting to be in the commercial algae production industry vs. a research project.

National Algae Association’s Incubator Program - Success or Failure?

NAA has established the first Algae Incubator Program in the world for algaepreneur’s interested in the emerging commercial algae production industry. Students and private industry learn methods in commercial algae cultivation, harvesting, extraction for potential bio-based co-products, and to experience the challenges, solutions, markets and opportunities.

From a personal perspective, National Algae Association’s incubator program has been extremely successful. Students learn how to successfully scale-up commercial cultivation, harvesting and extraction systems. They learn how to provide correct amounts of lighting, adjust nutrients and how air and water quality affect growth and how to compensate for those and other environmental conditions.

We have also witnessed the wrong people trying to lead algae companies – people who are more interested in lining up investors and lining their pockets than they are interested in building a company. Start-up algae companies need leadership that understands what it takes, in time and in commitment, to make a new company successful, and is willing to make the commitment and not relying on others to make or break the company. When that entrepreneurial spirit gets involved in commercial algae production, this industry will take off!

In 2007, President Bush signed Executive Order 13423 requiring federal agencies to reduce energy intensity by 3 percent annually through 2015 or by 30 percent by 2015, compared to the 2003 level. That same year, the Energy Independence and Security Act was signed into law, requiring new Federal buildings and major renovations to reduce fossil fuel energy use by 55 percent by 2010 (relative to 2003 usage levels) and to eliminate its usage altogether by 2030. It annual petroleum consumption by 2015 and a 10 percent increase in annual alternative fuel consumption. In 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order 13514, which was aimed at improving the also required federal agencies to achieve at least a 20 percent reduction in their vehicle fleet’s federal government’s environmental sustainability. It set a 28 percent reduction target for government greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 with an estimated energy savings target of $8 billion to $11 billion. The fact that we have reduced our usage does not negate these Executive Orders and yet there seems to be more excuses than compliance.

Algae transportation fuels will continue to be a dream for private industry and consumers. We can only hope that at some point the DOE Algae Biomass Program/Beto algae research program for fuels will be shut down for its poor performance and nonexistent results, and that maybe someone will be held responsible for the debacle. Taxpayer paid-for algae fuel technologies will continue to sit on shelves at labs throughout the country collecting dust for decades to come while the US is held hostage to foreign oil.

Since 2009 some important parts of algae fuel research have been validated but never executed at scale. Isn’t it about time to take the existing proven algae fuel technologies that have been validated by the government researchers in pilot scale and put them into commercial algae production for fuels? NAA has suggested taking the pieces of the algae fuel puzzle with claims that have been validated to date and put them to work in building one commercial algae fuel farm?

NAA has been calling for a ‘Algae Manhattan Project for Fuels’ bringing algae fuel research experts and private industry in collaboration to build the first commercial algae fuel farm in the world to be located in Texas. Any algae fuel researcher/expert in the World is welcome to join. We currently accepting CV’s from algae fuel experts from around the world with algae biofuel validation. Claims and validation of algae fuel technologies/IP have no value to date. NAA believes if we bring together the best and brightest in collaboration to build one commercial fuel farm these technologies be proven in real commercial production, will have more value then they currently have today sitting in labs and will finally prove once and for all that commercial algae biofuels can be a successful and profitable industry. Commercially-minded algae researchers, private industry and consumer demand are the only ones that can make algae fuels a reality.

After a decade of false hopes and misrepresentations about algae fuels NAA continues to bring morals, ethics and accountability to the algae production industry and has no time for anything less. We will continue to highlight the falsehoods as we continue to build a legitimate algae production industry. Over the last decade we have witnessed people breaking NDA’s and running scams all to find investment. This cannot stand. NAA only aligns itself with real commercial algae producers, nothing less. Our members are dedicated to the commercial algae production industry and building out new supply channels and have no time for the fraudsters.

In the new year, NAA plans are to continue working with real commercial algae producers growing for co-products, assisting students, private industry and new algae producers through our Algae Production Incubator Program and Certification Program, and continue to help build out raw material and ingredient algae biomass supply channels. NAA has developed the Algae Biomass Exchange on Linkedin as a meeting place for 'qualified' algae producers and potential off-takers in the commercial algae production industry.

We currently have haematococcus pluvialis biomass and astaxanthin powder samples (human and feed grade) available with COA's.

Have a Happy Algae New Year!

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The technology to make algae economically viable has been ignored for years.

Posted by Matt Snyder,

Algae production technology hadn't gotten the attention that it had needed since 2002. That's when I was introduced to basic concepts behind what would become known a the, industrial scale photobioreactor (PBR). I was working on a R&D project to create the first comprehensive system for the bioremediation of eutrophic water bodies and watersheds. It all began with the dirtiest lake in Southern California, Lake Elsinore. We were motivated to find a way to use the processes of nature to remove excess nitrates & phosphates from the lake water, and over time, the entire watershed to eliminate the algae bloom and crash that occurs every Summer which gives the entire basin a stench that lasts for weeks. The system we developed is fantastic, but the management was not. Hence, Lake Elsinore is to this day, a toilet listed as an EPA Superfund site. A site the EPA has been too busy polluting the country to respond to my inquiries about fixing the lake.

But, I digress.....

After the project ended, I put my notes on PBR design constraints and requirements on a shelf. Four years later, in 2006 the issue of Climate Change came to my attention for the first time with the need to do something productive with vast amount ts of Carbon Dioxide emissions from wherever they originate. With the experience gained in Lake Elsinore and my notebooks I simply determined the specific needs of the algae in general, and by species to determine the minimum and maximum values for many parameters like flow velocity and came up with a reasonable average. Then I applied the only formula necessary to guide the design process, (A/V). There were some basic issues to work out like the decision to use nutrient formulas that are species specific from the hydroponics industry. I came up with the first continuous microalgae harvester seen by the algae industry and realized that if the rates of growth and harvesting could be matched (approximately), that the PBR would become a biomass engine that was fully scalable, a sealed system to halt contamination and evaporation that if built on the appropriate scale was financially viable for the production of algae based biofuels where margins are very small. For marketing to investors I calculated the theoretical annual maximum output from the system and divided that by 2 so I wouldn't be over promising, leading to under delivering. I covered ALL of the bases technologically speaking. Every shortcoming of using raceway ponds was addressed, every single one. I had known that the experience and information that I had gained from the Elsinore project gave me a leg-up on others in the field, even the PhD Phycologists. After all, Phycologists study the algae, where my forte is system/machine design. It seems silly to me for academia to expect a Phycologist to somehow become a superior system designer. Studying algae is related to PBR design, but contributes the most to the determination of the requirements for the system. Without Phycologists doing what they do, I could have never done what I did. For this, I'm truly grateful.

Yet, the federal government regardless of what they said in the media, demonstrated the opposite. Promised grants were kept just out of reach, for five years. But, we're not going away. Why? Because it is no problem to grow algae species of much greater value as feed stocks for Big Pharma and others, that are produced in a similar quantity as algae for biofuels, raising the roof on the margins dramatically. But, the federal government nor many investors were able to accept a reality different from the "algae has failed" narrative pushed by the media. We're ready, the Biomass Engine is ready, and have been for a number of years.

Does the algae industry ignore me because I am not already rich? Only they know. But, the technology (US Patent #9051539B), IS here, and has been gathering dust. I would like to change the part about gathering dust, but can't do it alone.


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Much to Learn Yet Through R&D

Posted by Opubo G Benebo,

Indeed, the development of algae technology has been slow but that is because much is yet to be learned through research and development; and while it is not possible due to time constrain to delineate all the gaps in our knowledge of algae, one glaring example is that algae reaction dynamics is defined as Biologics Reaction Kinetics, and of which nothing is truly known. A very simple example is this: carbon dioxide diffuses into the environment of the algae and by osmotic pressure diffuses through the cytoplasm membrane and into the cell and onwards into the chloroplast. In the chloroplast it is processed into a glucose-type metabolite, this then diffuses out of the chloroplast back into the cytoplasm where it participates in both Catabolic and Anabolic Reactions with the latter producing intermediaries that serve reactants in the Biosynthesis reactions that cause the mass-growth and cell-divisions.

Now the Research and Development questions:
What is the reaction mechanism by which the optical energy actually gets transferred into the ADP and to form the ATP that drives the Calvins Cycle reactions?
What exactly are the sequences of reactions that transform the molecular CO2 into glucose-type metabolite?
What are the possible Denaturation-reactions in an algae cell and which are driven by acidity of the environment? etc, etc.
What is the chemical potential in the chloroplast at which the diffusion of the metabolite out of the chloroplast into cytoplasm occurs?
Through how many channels, (as transporters or symporters) through which the metabolites diffuse out of the chloroplast?
How the metabolites captured in the cytoplasm, with vesicles or just plain substances in the cytoplasm?
What are the transport-mechanics by which the enzymes travel from their biologics of production to the surface of the chloroplast to begin the reacting with the metabolite?

There are just so many things that the engineer still needs to know, that we don’t know as yet. Research and Development therefore is essential and must continue to be supported.

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