One man’s whisky is another man’s fish food

[UK] Two years ago, Douglas Martin’s flat was littered with petri dishes, conical flasks and do-it-yourself incubators. He was experimenting with ways to encourage algae to grow on various types of waste. Progress was slow.

For one, it was harder to get hold of the waste than one might think (very few companies are happy to “pull their shorts down” for their waste to be examined, according to Martin). The set-up was also pretty basic.

Still, he managed to use industrial wastewater to grow omega-3 rich microalgae, which could be used to feed farmed fish or livestock. “It’s amazing what you can do without your landlord knowing,” he says.

Today, Martin sits proudly in the microbial cell laboratory at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, surrounded by state-of-the-art incubators and fermenters worth tens of thousands of euros. He is on the cusp of securing the investment he needs (£0.5m, €0.56m) to start pilot-scale trials with Diageo, the world’s largest producer of spirits, as well as increasing staff at MiAlgae, the company he has set up, from three to five.

The plan is to take by-products from the whisky-making process, called pot ale, add particular strains of microalgae, other secret ingredients, and allow the algae to bloom inside a specially designed 50-litre fermenter. Could these microalgae of his actually turn out to be big business?

“This isn’t a science project,” he tells me on a visit to the laboratory, part of IBioIC’s FlexBio Centre at the university, earlier this month. “You can have the greenest technology in the world but it’s no good if there’s no money to be made [from it].”

The business side of waste

Martin may be trained as a geneticist and microbiologist but it quickly becomes clear that he is a businessman too. Everything the team does must be potentially scalable, which is not surprising given the waste at their disposal.

For every litre of whisky produced there are eight litres of pot ale (a statistic the whisky producers do not like to publicise). The majority of this ‘co-product’, as distillers call it, is spread on land, discharged at sea or treated as wastewater. Some are used for livestock feed but the energy demands are high and the returns are low.

Shell LiveWIRE 2017 photography – Douglas Martin, Edinburgh, 2017

Martin believes his approach is more commercially viable. The fermenters aren’t cheap to build (the reason that some of the flasks are covered in tinfoil is because they’re testing strains that grow well without light because a glass fermenter would be much pricier) or run, especially as he expands to 1,000 litre and eventually 30,000 litre capacities.

Having them on site at distilleries will cut transport costs and, as scale increases, costs will fall. He will also be selling into a market that is set to expand rapidly and supply customers that are hungry for alternatives to fish oil.

Fish feed problem

The aquaculture sector in Scotland supports around 8,000 jobs and is worth £1.8bn to the economy. Salmon is the flagship species and Scotland’s top food export: £600m in 2017, the highest ever and an increase of 35 percent against 2016. By 2030 the plan is to double the size of the country’s aquaculture (there are similar projections for Europe’s sector) and that means demand for feed will rocket too.

But there is a problem. Historically, the two most important ingredients in fish feed have been fishmeal and fish oil. Around a fifth (22 percent) of wild caught fish is currently used to feed farmed fish, but with 85 percent of global stocks either exploited or depleted there is a heavy price to pay for catching fish to feed fish (the sector has other headaches too, including sea lice, which are hitting production and threatening the industry’s ‘clean’ image).

Fish oil prices are also extremely volatile, hitting a peak of $2,500 per tonne a couple of years ago and forcing many feed manufacturers to look even harder for alternatives. Grains and oilseeds, such as soybean and sunflower seeds, have been increasingly added to mixtures in the past couple of decades.

In Norway, for example, fish oil represented 24 percent of salmon feed in 1990 and vegetal raw materials 11 percent; by 2014 fish oil was down to nine percent whilst the plant-based portion had rocketed to 74 percent. This swing has created a “fish oil problem”, as the Financial Times put in an article in April 2017.

Omega-3

More specifically it’s an omega-3 problem. These long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are an essential nutritional requirement for marine fish in particular. In the 1990s, rising levels of fish oil in feed led to farmed Atlantic salmon with high levels of omega-3, which went down well with health-conscious consumers.

But a 2016 study by experts at Stirling University in Scotland showed that levels of these fatty acids in Scottish farmed salmon have halved in the 10 years from 2005 to 2015. As a result, consumers would need to eat two portions rather than one in order to meet the fatty acid intakes recommended by health advisors.

Martin hopes his omega-3 rich algae could provide one solution, eventually at a price point that is both competitive and stable. Tests are ongoing – and much faster than in those early days. “We’ve done five years’ worth of work in six months thanks to the equipment here,” he says, with each experiment now taking just a week to deliver a result. The tests are small, but produce vast amounts of data so they can identify which strains grow well and under what conditions.

From 20 or so contenders they’ve now “whittled it down” and are gearing up for the pilot with Diageo – a company that sees water security and stewardship as one of its biggest risks and opportunities. Feeding fish with whisky waste could be a perfect example of circular economy thinking, says Martin, but there is scope to do much more with Scotland’s waste.

The whisky sector produces 4.37 million tonnes of bio-based waste and by-products a year, whilst in aquaculture the figure is 190,000 tonnes. In beer – another key sector – it’s over 56,000 tonnes. Making better use of all that ‘waste’ could result in economic benefits of over £800m, according to a study by consultants Ricardo Energy and Environment.

However, data on what’s in all this industrial waste is lacking. “If we had more information about what’s being discharged it would be easy to [make better use of it],” says Martin. You get the feeling he already has more plans for those algae of his.

 

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