The new algae alchemists

[Estonia] It almost sounds too good to be true. A means to soak up a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and use it to help the world’s growing population feed itself. That is the promise of a process that could harness the carbon dioxide generated by heavy industry to cultivate microalgae that can then be used to produce feedstock for animals and even food for humans.

A spin off from the University of Tartu, Power Algae is one of several companies trying to mix microalgae alchemy into industrial processes. But the technology developed by Power Algae, branded ALGACAP, differs from its peers in that it is designed to cultivate microalgae right through the harsh winters of Northern Europe, when daylight is in short supply and temperatures are generally below freezing.

These “suboptimal climatic conditions” had threatened to undermine Europe’s competitive position in the fast growing microalgae market, according to a 2014 report by the Joint Research Centre on this sector. Noting Europe’s “outstanding tradition in high-quality agriculture production”, the JRC report recommended public support for research into the use of microalgae as a diversification strategy for food and feed inputs, as the continent tries to mitigate climate change.

“Sequestrating CO2 from flue gas is done in a couple of places using different technologies, but there is no conclusive, dominant design – an optimal solution has not been found,” says Liina Joller-Vahter, CEO of Power Algae and a lecturer at the University of Tartu. “The main challenge is to make it commercially viable.”

Extracting valuable compounds

Launched in 2013 by Joller-Vahter and a fellow doctoral student, Power Algae has developed a process to sequestrate carbon dioxide directly from flue gas and use it to accelerate the growth of microalgae in a prototype photobioreactor deployed in the Estonian University of Life Sciences. Several valuable compounds can be extracted from the microalgae that grow inside these biological filters, which can then be used to produce livestock feed, oils, cosmetics and other products.

The next step for Power Algae is a large-scale pilot in collaboration with an industrial company, which can integrate the new photobioreactor into its chimneys and then grow microalgae in greenhouses next to its production plants. The goal would be both to generate an additional source of revenue and offset the negative environmental impact of the existing industrial process.

Under the European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), emitters of carbon dioxide have to buy permits, the cost of which varies with the so-called carbon price set by ETS. “The carbon price is definitely part of the economics,” says Joller-Vahter. “But if the biomass could be commercialised to its full potential, then it could be viable without the carbon price.”In future, Power Algae also plans to set up its own algae cultivation operation and offer a “flue gas cleaning service” to third parties.

As it plans the large-scale pilot, Power Algae is in discussions with three potential partners – an oil shale oil producer, a local heat energy producer and a cement company. Which one takes priority may depend on the chemistry: “The characteristics of the flue gas are crucial,” Joller-Vahter explains. “It depends on the percentage of CO2 and other ingredients.”  To raise the 1-2 million euros required to get the large scale pilot up and running, the start-up also plans to tap EU funds, potentially from the Horizon 2020 programme.

Natural algae versus GMO

If this pilot proves the economics will work, commercialisation will be the next step. Professor Timo Kikas of the Estonian University of Life Sciences is optimistic: Tests using a semi-industrial burning process, a heat laboratory and a prototype photobioreactor at the Estonian University of Life Sciences have demonstrated that Power Algae’s solution could be used to grow microalgae inside greenhouses at Estonia’s latitude. “In the past few years, the advances have been considerable: We are now talking about very different reactors from five years ago,” notes Kikas. “Many scientific approaches are looking at using genetic modification, but this has many downsides, not least the issue of social acceptance. But as natural algae can be very effective at carbon capture, we don’t really need to go that way.”

All about algae

The waters of the world, oceans, seas, rivers, creeks, lakes and even ice, host a large variety of organisms which are able to use light as the only energy source for their metabolic processes. Algae are a group of relatively simple, plant-like organisms, most of which are capable of performing photosynthesis: They capture light and use its energy to convert CO2 into sugars and oxygen. In this way, they make a large contribution to global oxygen production (between 50 to 87 per cent). There are 80,000 to 100,000 different algae species with widely varying characteristics; many of which have been investigated. Algae size ranges from micrometres of unicellular micro-algae to macro-algae seaweeds of tens of metres.

Source: Joint Research Centre. Microalgae-based products for the food and feed sector: an outlook for Europe, 2014

To make its process as efficient as possible, Power Algae is using connected sensors that continuously monitor temperature, light levels and other crucial parameters inside its photobioreactor. “In future, the whole process could be automatic,” notes Joller-Vahter. “If you have the sensors, you can create algorithms that automatically optimise the conditions for the species. You can also use triggers when the conditions go above and below certain thresholds to change the heating and the lighting.”

If it does prove commercially viable to grow microalgae in Northern Europe, the region will be competing with existing suppliers from Asia, which tend to use large artificial ponds in fields in the open air. “The challenge for them is that anything in nature can fall in and create contamination, whereas our photobioreactors are much more controlled,” explains Joller-Vahter. “Our method is more expensive, but you are getting a purer product quality, which is key in cosmetics and the food and feed sectors.” Power Algae employs LED lights at a specific wavelength for a set number of hours at a time, dependent on the species of algae being cultivated. The environmental conditions can be tweaked to govern the fat content, the protein content and the pigment content of the algae, depending on the target market.

“It is a growing market because consumers want more products from natural ingredients – there is demand for products from natural sources rather than from the oil industry,” explains Joller-Vahter. Although the production of microalgae in Europe is low (accounting for less than 2% of global production), the commercial value of some species cultivated in the region  (such as Haematococcus pluvialis, which is used in the health food market) can be as high as €125/ml, according to the European Biomass Industry Association.

 

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AlgaEnergy, Krishi Rasayan Group announce joint venture ‘AgMA Energy’ to bring new agricultural dolutions for key Asian markets

[India] AlgaEnergy’s wholly-owned subsidiary in India, MicroAlgae Solutions India Pvt. Ltd. (MASI) and Krishi Rasayan Export Pvt Ltd’s Continue reading AlgaEnergy, Krishi Rasayan Group announce joint venture ‘AgMA Energy’ to bring new agricultural dolutions for key Asian markets

Foraging for seaweed is food for the soul

[UK] Sea spaghetti, anyone? Or how about a bladderwrack bath? Gayle goes foraging for seaweed in the East Neuk with Jayson Byles.

Since meeting up with Jayson Byles on a beach in the East Neuk, I’ve bathed in bladderwrack and crafted myriad dinners from various species of foraged seaweeds.

Jayson, a professional seaweed harvester, is a man bursting with passion and enthusiasm. He’s a man who, at first sight, resembles Captain Jack Sparrow, with his flailing dreadlocks, sparkling eyes and ready smile.

Courier Features, Gayle Ritchie story CR0008002 . Gayle goes foraging for seaweed with Jayson Byles at Kingsbarns beach. Pic shows; Jayson Byles talking Gayle through the different types of seaweed at Kingsbarns. Thursday, 11th April, 2019. Kris Miller/DCT Media.

Like Jack Sparrow, Jayson is brave and dedicated to his mission – not of slaying pirates of the Caribbean, but of finding his very own treasures in the North Sea.

He moved to the East Neuk three years ago after being offered a management position for a commercial seaweed company. Unhappy with the amount of plastic the company was producing, and keen to pass on his skills of self-sufficiency, Jayson set up East Neuk Seaweed this year.

I’m lucky enough to have Jayson all to myself on a sunny, but extremely chilly, morning in April. We meet at Kingsbarns beach and after a quick briefing, we head down to the rocky shore.

“Most of the action happens in the inter-tidal zone, so the best time to harvest is during the lowest tides, known as ‘spring tides’,” he explains.

We’re on a mission to find an array of seaweeds and when we do find them, we need to harvest them sustainably. That means not ripping out the “holdfast”, the structure that attaches seaweed to rocks and allows it to grow again.

Jayson cutting some seaweed making sure to leave the holdfast intact. Kris Miller/DCT Media.

Our first find is bladderwrack, an iodine-rich form of kelp that’s been used medicinally for centuries.

“Put this in a bath and your skin will feel amazingly moisturised,” advises Jayson, plonking a huge handful of the slightly sinister looking stuff into a bag.

Having tasted and loved pepper dulse previously, I whoop with excitement when Jayson finds it in abundance and invites me to pluck some straight from the rocks.

“Try that in a stir fry later if you don’t eat it all raw first,” laughs Jayson.

Sea spaghetti. Kris Miller/DCT Media.

While elusive, we do indeed find sugar kelp, dulse and dabberlocks, but Jayson is determined to locate some sea spaghetti.

“I’ll need to dive into the sea to find some. I’ve got my wetsuit on and the sun’s out – I’ll be fine,” he smiles.

Minutes later, he emerges with three bags of the stuff which we sample, raw.

“This stuff is amazing,” he says. “My favourite way to eat seaweed is fresh off the rocks. I like simple, so fresh sea spaghetti quickly blanched with a nice dressing and eaten with salad is probably one of my favourite seaweed dishes. Another favourite is porphyra or nori/purple laver, as it’s available in late winter before most land plants have awoken.”

Jayson is a veritable font of knowledge on all things related to seaweed.
Kris Miller/DCT Media.

While some regard seaweed as ugly and hazardous to shore-strollers, look at it from another perspective and it’s actually rather beautiful – the ruby red fronds of dulse, the balloon bubbles of bladderwrack, the leathery belts of kelp and translucent green of sea lettuce.

Unconvinced by its associated benefits? Jayson is more than happy to extol its virtues.

“Seaweed is pretty balanced with carbs and protein and high in vitamins.

“It’s also high in magnesium, potassium and all the trace elements that are lacking in modern diets. Washed up seaweed is great for the garden as a mulch, a liquid feed or to boost the compost heap. The ‘alginates’ in seaweed are widely used by both the food and beauty industries,” he enthuses.

Foraging for seaweed is a fantastic when done in a sustainable way.

When it comes to cooking with seaweed, Jayson, who worked as a professional chef in his native New Zealand, as well as in Australia, Ireland and Scotland, is an expert.

“There are so many options with seaweed – it’s so versatile. If I don’t have seaweed with my eggs in the morning, then my day isn’t the same,” he says.

Jayson’s move from working for a commercial seaweed harvesting company to running his own small business, is, he says, much more sustainable, relatable and enjoyable for everyone involved. It’s also more much supportive for local communities and less impactful on our environment.

“We’re surrounded by this natural abundance, but the only seaweed available to buy is either cheap imported or high end ‘artisan’,” he says.

Jayson discovers some dulse.

“I want to pass on a variety of immersive experiences and skills in self-sufficiency, coupled with a respect and awe for nature.

“I take small groups of people on exciting journeys to discover nature’s abundance. On a trip, you’ll learn how to spot inter-tidal zones, how to identify edible seaweeds as they come into season, and how to stay safe in this potentially dangerous environment.

“Wild foods are nutrient dense and unparalleled in terms of health benefits, but we need to be respectful and think long term about the impact on the habitat.

“It’s a constant balance and I hope to really embed that philosophy of moderation into how we approach any wild food.”

Gayle and Jayson at Kingsbarns Beach. Check out the daffodils!

Back home in the evening, I can’t wait to start experimenting with my seaweed and first up is my bladderwrack bath.

Once I get used to the strange fronds tickling me (and the odd snail shell), I relax and enjoy the oily, moisturising feeling. Heck, who needs Radox!

Conscious of being eco-friendly, I use the drained bladderwrack as compost in the garden and I’m sure I can see the potentilla starting to perk up!

My dinners for the week are utterly sumptuous, something I never usually say about my cooking. I experiment with stir fries and spaghettis and…just wow!

Seaweed – I salute you!

Jayson is running a series of daytime and sunset edible foraging sessions via East Neuk Seaweed during summer. Tours are based in the East Neuk, but Jayson will travel to groups outside the region. Bespoke sessions can be arranged. Topics include identifying
edible seaweeds, staying safe, sustainability, wild and seasonal cooking, beach craft survival skills, and other uses for seaweed. For more information and to book, see www.eastneukseaweed.com

 

Photo: Jayson Byles talking Gayle through the different types of seaweed at Kingsbarns.

View original article at: Foraging for seaweed is food for the soul

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