Local bio-tech firm working to find algae-based alternative to fossil fuels

THE photosynthesising plant-like organism Spirulina, which does not have true roots, stems or leaves, and live mostly in marine and freshwater environments, has the potential to produce food protein s and renewable biofuels.

In 1974, the United Nations named spirulina as one of the best potential foods for the future. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the US has also studied Spirulina as a potential food source for space travel.

Locally in Malaysia, Algaetech International Sdn Bhd is in the process of commercialising an anti-oxidant known as astaxanthin derived from Haematococcus pluvialis, another type of microalgae.

Datuk Syed Isa Syed Alwi, founder and managing director of Algaetech International, says this is one of the first steps to tap the full potential of the algae for their business.

“The profits from this product will be ploughed into more research-intensive areas such as biofuels,” Syed Isa says.

The company, incorporated in 2004, is involved in the research of microalgae, development and consultancy for renewable energy solutions and production and marketing of high-value algae related products.

The former chief executive officer of a food and beverage conglomerate in the Netherlands says running Algaetech International has been a great learning experience as he has discovered potential markets that could grow due to global warming, energy and food security issues.

Generally, there are over 300,000 species of algae and so far less then 30 species have commercial potential.

After two years of studying various organisms and algae for their potential, he decided in 2006 that haematococcus pluvialis was the best choice to work on.

“We learnt that algae is the one of the few organisms that can quickly multiply while consuming carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen in the process, which has great potential for our company’s activities, ” he said.

According to Syed Isa, Haematococcus pluvialis, has nine stages throughout its life span and each stage requires different conditions, from temperature, pH level, nitrate content and others. to facilitate growth.

The process involves growing the algae in photobioreactors where the culture medium, temperature, lighting and other factors are controlled and tweaked according to the life-cycle of the algae.

“Harvesting this special algae remains a challenge as there is no for dummies manual available. So, we are continuously doing R&D to increase yield,” he said.

There are also difficulties in determining specific types of algae.

“I could not get our local laboratories to do the verification as they do not have the expertise,” he says.

As a result, the company had to invest about RM 500,000 (about USD 150,000) for high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) equipment that can separate the components in a mixture so that each component present can be identified and quantified.

The algae, after being converted into powder, is then vacuum packed and sent to the company’s partners in New Zealand to be converted into capsules for human consumption.

Syed Isa, who has experience building various algae-related facilities, from bioremediation plants to carbon capture facilites, said about RM9 mil had been invested to date, including grants from the government and profit that the company reinvested.

Their first project involved setting up a carbon dioxide sequestration project in Batam, Indonesia, where CO2 emitted from a power plant is being used to cultivate algae. The algae is then used for biofuel R&D and conversion to ingredients for the food supply chain.

Some of the company’s other projects include bioremediation plants for Indah Water Konsortium, algae production and research centres for the government and private sectors in South Korea and Brunei.

He added the company also handles consultation on projects related to algae technologies and has been involved in more than 10 projects locally and abroad.

“We also received a grant from the Aerospace Malaysia Innovation Centre and the European Aeronautics, Space, and Defence Company (EADS) last year to do research and development for producing bio-jet fuel from algae. The project is still ongoing,” he said.

From a 2,000 sq ft rented shoplot in Jalan Jelatek, Kuala Lumpur with 10 employees and RM500,000 in capital, the company had since expanded to a five acre site in Technology Park Malaysia, Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.

Once complete, he site will be home to full-scale Haematococcus production facility capable of producing 42 tonnes of algae a year. Construction of the facility began last year.

Part of the facility is already producing up to 500kg of algae a month.

When the facility reaches its full production capacity, Syed Isa is projecting annual revenues of RM22 mil a year, beginning from next year.

He says the facility, consisting of two cultivation greenhouses and a bio-processing laboratory area, uses state of the art clean-room technologies to prevent contamination and maintains high levels of cleanliness.

The site, which has a RM20 mil project financing facility from Malaysian Debt Venture Bhd, is expected to attract experts from around the world while also nurturing Malaysian biotechnologists.

Recalling there was a time that he had to sell his car to pay staff salaries, Syed Isa says, the company now has 60 employees, mainly comprising biologist and graduates in life sciences.

The company also plays host to interns from various local universities.

With plans to go for a public listing in the next two to three years, after its production facility is completed early next year, Syed Isa says the company will first focus on establishing its presence in South-East Asian markets.


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