History of Spirulina industry in China: Interview with Hong-Jun Hu

[China] In the late 1970s, since the implementation of the reform and opening-up policy by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PROC), the country’s economy and education system has undergone immense changes in terms of modernization and industrialization. This is the result of collective efforts of groups of local and oversea scholars who strive to build and develop the country.

Prof. Hong-Jun Hu is one of the scholars who contributed particularly to the development of the algae industry in China. Because of his contribution in introducing and promoting Spirulina cultivation technology, he is highly regarded as the “Father of Spirulina” of China. The Spirulina industry flourishes since the 1990s, with a total production of 8,000 tons of Spirulina (dried powder) in year 2014 by 65 registered Spirulina producing companies throughout the country. It was estimated that the global Spirulina production was 12,000 tons in year 2013. Production of Spirulina in China contributes more than half of the world’s total Spirulina production.

On 19th June 2015, Algae World News has the pleasure to meet and interview with Prof. Hu.

Prof. Hu and Mr. Ying-hong Tan at Lake Chenghai.
Prof. Hu and Mr. Ying-hong Tan at Lake Chenghai.

During this meeting, we were warmly welcomed by Prof. Hu at the old town of Lijiang, which is a UNESCO Heritage Site famous for its 800 year-old orderly residential buildings, waterway systems and bridges. From there, Prof. Hu and his fellow disciple, Ying-hong Tan, drove us to a lake called Chenghai (Click here to view the map location of Chenghai on google map), which is the site where China’s first Spirulina cultivation pilot plant was developed. Ying-hong Tan is the general manager of Lijiang Chenghai Baoer Biological Development Co. Ltd, a company which produce Spirulina at Chenghai lake.

UNESCO heritage site, Lijiang old town.
UNESCO heritage site, Lijiang old town.

Lake Chenghai is well-known for its natural grown Spirulina. The early Chinese people once wrote a poem for Chenghai Lake. Quoting one of the sentence from the poem, “The beautiful silver lake surrounded by gorgeous mountains.”

Surrounded by mountains, Chenghai lake is located at the Yongsheng county of Yunnan province, which is about 1,500 m above sea level. The total water volume of Chenghai lake is about 2 billion cubic meter, with a surface area of 77.2 kilometer square. The average water temperature stays around 15.9 ℃, and the highest temperature reaches 26.6 ℃ during the summer. It is one of a very the few lakes in the world where natural habitat of Spirulina is found.

During the 3-hour drive to Chenghai, Prof. Hu generously shared with us the history of development of Spriulina industry in China. Currently at the age of 81, Prof. Hu was able to converse, respond, and enunciate clearly, despite his limited physical activity due to aging. Being asked about the lifestyle of keeping himself healthy at such age, he told us, “consume Spirulina everyday”.

Chenghai lake view from the top of a mountain. The lake is surrounded by a few small villages where farming is the main economic activity. To maintain the natural habitat, fishing is allowed only three times a year, where each time last for 20 days.
Chenghai lake view from the top of a mountain. The lake is surrounded by a few small villages where farming is the main economic activity. To maintain the natural habitat, fishing is allowed only three times a year, where each time last for 20 days.

In 1957, as a fresh graduate of College of Life Science at Wuhan University, Prof. Hu served as a researcher at the Institute of Hydrobiology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He then obtained his Ph.D degree from the Academy and served as an assistant director of the institute. In 1980 to 1982, he went to University of California at Berkeley as a visiting scholar. Subsequently, he became the director of the institute for 2 terms.

Prof Hu at University of California, Berkeley, in 1980.
Prof Hu at University of California, Berkeley, in 1980.

In 1983, the institute received fundings from the government to explore and develop the algae industry in China. As the lead researcher of the institute, Prof. Hu had to decide the algae species to be used and developed. To name a few, Spirulina, Chlorella, and Dunaliella, are among the top choices of hundreds of local algae species that he isolated and collected. He soon drop out Dunaliella because the location of the Institute at Wuhan, which is too far away from the source of salt water. Chlorella was voted out as well because the tiny size of Chlorella makes harvesting difficult during that time.

Prof. Hu was informed that water of Chenghai lake is highly alkaline, and the weather is perfect with abundant of sunlight. It is suitable for the growth of Spirulina. He then planned a trip to Chenghai lake to conduct some preliminary survey and water analysis.

Prof. Hu (left) and researcher are inspecting and collecting water samples from Chenghai lake in 1985.
Prof. Hu (left) and researcher are inspecting and collecting water samples from Chenghai lake in 1985.

“During that time, commercial aviation industry was not developed. There was no highway. It took us 3 days by train from Wuhan to Kunming, which is the nearest train station to Chenghai lake. We then hired a car to drive us from Kunming to Lijiang. That spent us another day.” Prof. Hu recalled.

“From Lijiang, we rode on donkey cart to Chenghai lake. We have no other choice since there is no asphalt road for cars. It took us 1 or 2 days to reach there, depending on the physical and emotional conditions of the donkeys.” Prof. Hu explained in laughter.

Prof. Hu went to Chenghai lake almost every year since 1983. They build a small research station at the village located at the East coast of the lake. The researchers collected water samples and analyzed data such as mineral content, acidity, turbidity, temperature, biodiversity, etc.

“30 years ago, I have no idea China would become world’s top Spirulina producer. It was my passion which drove me further.” Prof. Hu said.

Spirulina cultivation pilot plant built in 1985 (bottom). Top: The current location of the Spirulina cultivation pilot plant, which is now converted into a parking lot.
Spirulina cultivation pilot plant built in 1985 (bottom). Top: The current location of the Spirulina cultivation pilot plant, which is now converted into a parking lot.

Upon arrival, Ying-hong Tan immediately drove us to the site where the first Spirulina cultivation pilot plant was ever built in China. It is located by the shore of Chenghai lake.

“This is where the story begins.” Ying-hong Tan pointed to an open air parking lot and told us excitedly. The pilot plant was demolished a few years ago.

Ying-hong Tan’s father, Guo-ren Tan, was actually one of the construction workers who built the concrete raceway pond of the pilot plant 30 years ago. Guo-ren Tan is the founder of Chenghai Baoer Biological Development Co. Ltd. and Lijiang Yongbao Concrete Co. Ltd.. which is one of the biggest investor of the Spirulina farm.

Guo-ren Tan (right) and Prof. Hu (left).
Guo-ren Tan (right) and Prof. Hu (left).

Ying-hong Tan led us to walk along the lakeside. We admired the beautiful scenery and the crystal clear Chenghai lake water. We asked Prof. Hu if it is possible to find Spirulina in such clear water.

“We did not know if the Spirulina is authentic to the lake. Our preliminary study was to test for the feasibility of Spirulina cultivation using the lake water. And we found it to be productive using the lake water.” Prof. Hu said.

“The Spirulina species that we used for cultivation were those we brought from our lab collection. Long after introducing the lab grown Spirulina to the pilot plant, then only we found that there were abundant of Spirulina in the lake. Therefore, we were not sure if the Spirulina in the lake now are authentic species or the descendant of those which were introduced to the lake while we were doing our experiment.” Prof Hu explained.

“I believe we introduced them to the lake. The lake water was oligotrophic and crystal clear in the 1980s. Only a few species of green algae was found. But the pH is definitely high, which is around 8.9.” Prof. Hu recalled.

“The pilot plant experiment showed promising result. We then proceeded further to construct a 3,000 m2 commercial cultivation plant by the lakeside.” Prof. Hu told us.

In 1986, researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Science, were assigned to handle the ‘Algae Proteins Research and Development’ project under the “7th National Five-year Plan”. The group, headed by Prof. Hu, revisited Chenghai, stationed there for a few months and built the 3,000 m2 commercial scale concrete raceway pond for Spirulina cultivation. This is the first commercial scale Spirulina cultivation plant built for economic feasibility study in China.

The first commercial production Spirulina farm by the lakeside of Chenghai lake.
The first commercial production Spirulina farm by the lakeside of Chenghai lake in 1989.

After the commercial studies of Spirulina cultivation using Chenghai lake water was demonstrated successfully, various similar Spirulina cultivation technology rapidly emerged along the shore of Chenghai lake. Soon, the lake became the world’s largest production base of Spirulina.

Picture shows the very first commercial Spirulina cultivation system demonstrated in China. The Spirulina from the raceway pond was harvested using filter bags.
Picture shows the very first commercial Spirulina cultivation system demonstrated in China. The Spirulina from the raceway pond was harvested using filter bags.

During the development of the commercial production plant, the team invited algae industry experts such as Amos Richmond and Ralph Arnold Lewin to visit their Chenghai lake Spirulina farm and exchange ideas. Prof. Hu himself also visited a few oversea Spirulina producing companies, including the Earthrise Spirulina farm in the USA to learn about the technologies and updates.

Phycologist Amos Richmond visited the Spirulina farm and commented on the manual plate-press Spirulina dewatering system.
Phycologist Amos Richmond visited the Spirulina farm and commented on the manual plate-press Spirulina dewatering system.
Hong-jun Hu (left) and phycologist Ralph Arnold Lewin (right) from the USA.
Hong-jun Hu (left) and phycologist Ralph Arnold Lewin (right) from the USA.

In 1995, Chenghai’s Spirulina industry development was listed as the “18 Biological Resources Development Project” in Yunnan Province and became the most featured industry in Yongsheng County.

By the late 1990s, there were 20 commercial Spirulina production plants of different scale built along the coast of Chenghai lake, with a total investment of RMB 280 million (about 45 million USD), producing more than 1,000 tons of Spirulina per year. The lake became the largest Spirulina production site in the world during that time, generating over 50 types of commercial Spirulina products in China. Chenghai lake is then highly regarded as the “Blue Treasure Bowl”.

Other than Spirulina cultivation, the other agriculture activities were also rapidly developed around the lake during the same period. However, these rapid developments were disastrous to the lake and the surrounding ecosystem.

Up to date, out of the 20 Spirulina producing companies, only 4 of them left at Chenghai Lake. Follow our news to know why.

 

Exclusively reported by Algae World News

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