The company, called Arizona Algae Products, is based near Holbrook on the Colorado Plateau at an elevation of about 5,000 Ft. The area is an arid sagebrush plain almost devoid of human habitation. But it does offer two things that an algae cultivator needs: ample sunshine and, paradoxically, ample water.
Site has tempted more than one algae pioneer
The surrounding surface terrain has never been productive in an agricultural sense. There’s not enough rain to grow crops, most stream beds in the area are dry most of the year and the ground water is brackish. But it’s that groundwater that first attracted algae pioneers to the site.
Arizona Algae’s pilot facility sits atop the Coconino Aquifer. The portion of the aquifer at the company’s site yields water that is pristine, but also salty, and thus unsuitable for agriculture. It’s that combination of lots of sunshine and a ready water source that no one else wants that attracted the founders of the Arizona Algae’s predecessor, a company known as Algae Biosciences.
That company ran afoul of the typically long lead time necessary to develop a commercial scale process for algae ingredients. It was far from the first algae company to fail to clear that hurdle.
Experience in algae technology put to good use
Henk de Waard, PhD, Arizona Algae's president and CEO, said his background and training in engineering processes put him in a good position to solve the production challenges that bedeviled his company’s predecessor. De Waard, who was trained as a physicist and mathematician with a PhD from the University of Delft in the Netherlands, had worked for a number of years in the semiconductor industry before branching out on his own.
“I wanted to so something that was even more impactful and more directly related to people,” De Waard told NutraIngredients-USA. “I got into clean tech and renewable energy. We were designing and producing equipment for the renewable energy sector.”
De Waard said after a presentation he gave in Arizona he was approached by officials from Arizona State University (which now houses AzCATI, or the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation) to design and build algae cultivation and processing equipment for the university.
“We did a project for them and one project led to another. We ended up building out the whole algae site for ASU,” he said. “I was thinking we are getting a lot of experience at algae cultivation. Maybe we should use our own technologies on our own project.”
Two stage, fully enclosed process
Arizona Algae uses a two stage process. Nanochloropsis algae cells are first cultivated in bioreactors (after having been started in the lab) and then are released into raceway ponds for the final growth stages. Unlike many cultivators of algae using the raceway approach, Arizona Algae’s ponds will be fully enclosed within greenhouses.
“I’m a firm believer that for food applications you need to grow the algae under controlled circumstances. That’s why we are building a greenhouse. That’s the best way to control the quality of the products. Greenhouses do of course add to the capital cost of our operation, but I believe that will be offset by having stable production year over year,” De Waard said.
The company will focus on offering an EPA rich oil as a supplement ingredient. In addition, the company will offer a whole algal powder that is high in protein as well as a defatted algal powder, which is left over after the oil extraction. The EPA ingredient is in a form that is high in glycolipids.
In addition to the plant-based aspect of the company’s products, De Waard said the company has a strong sustainability message.
“This specific location sits atop a salt dome,” De Waard said. “We are using water that has never been touched by human hands. It is much cleaner than ocean water and of course it cannot be used for agriculture. The land is here is desert land that cannot be used for other purposes, and most of our energy comes from the sun.”
De Waard said the new greenhouse that will be complete by Christmas will bring the company’s capacity up to 30 metric tons annually. Further expansions are planned to push that figure to 100 metric tons by the end of 2021.