From algae to yeast: the quest to find an alternative to palm oil

[Global] When green cleaning company Ecover announced the launch of a new laundry liquid containing an oil made from algae, as an alternative to the palm oil used in most detergents, it wasn’t prepared for the backlash.

The problem? The algae producing the oil were genetically modified. “We put everything on hold,” says Tom Domen, global head of long-term innovation at Ecover, following reactions to the 2014 product trial.

Environmental groups Friends of the Earth and Grain were among 17 organisations to sign an open letter calling on the company to “reconsider the false solution of using ingredients derived from the new genetic engineering”.

For Ecover it was a lesson learned. “We had quite detailed conversations with all our stakeholders,” says Domen, “for which the main outcome was that we were a bit clearer on how we would go about deciding on responsible innovation … and what the principles for use are when going off with more controversial technologies.”

Ecover’s experience highlights just some of the difficulties of finding a viable palm oil alternative. The vegetable oil is ubiquitous in consumer products from food to detergent, prized for its properties including a high melting point and its relative cheapness. But it also comes with hefty environmental and social impacts.

This has led companies and scientists to seek sustainable alternatives, whether that’s other vegetable oils, such as rapeseed or coconut, or more hi-tech options. The problem many come up against is that palm oil is not only cheap but also more productive than a lot of other vegetable oils.

Isolated alga growing in a petri dish Photograph: NYU Abu Dhabi

But the quest continues. Last month, scientists in Abu Dhabi announced that they had been working with a species of alga, found abundantly across the UAE, that naturally produce large quantities of palmitic acid – the fatty acid that is a major component in palm oil.

“It could potentially be a good substitute for many of the uses of palm oil,” says Kourosh Salehi-Ashtiani, associate professor of biology at New York University in Abu Dhabi. The bonus of the algae he says, is that they can grow in fresh or salt water, “that means you don’t need to waste freshwater and you can grow it, if you want to scale up, in desert areas for instance.”

The algae that the lab is working on have not been genetically modified, and “it naturally makes a lot of oil” says Salehi-Ashtiani. To use it on an industrial scale, he says, genetic screening – testing algae to identify those strains that are most productive – might be needed.

As for cost, no figures are available at this stage, he adds, but this will depend on growing location. He acknowledges palm oil is cheap but “cheap isn’t necessarily good, and people who are informed don’t necessarily go for cheap”.

It is early days for the project. The lab is only growing the algae “one litre at a time, max – and usually it’s not even that,” he says. “It’s got potential, absolutely yes, can I say that for sure it will be successful? You have to do the work to find out.”

Lab members from NYU AD, Salehi-Ashtiani is centre. Photograph: Sarah Daakour/NYU AD

Dr Chris Chuck, at the University of Bath, is further down the line in the race to find a workable palm oil alternative but with a different organism. Yeast. The yeast – Metschnikowia pulcherrima – produces an oil with similar properties to palm oil and can grow with any feedstock. This could be anything from municipal waste to supermarket waste or agricultural residue. “We’re not looking at growing a specific crop on agricultural land to feed our process, it really is using the residues from other food production,” says Chuck.

Funded with a £4m government grant, the team is establishing how to scale up production, and calculating how sustainable it can be. Three companies are working with Chuck’s team on the project and he is seeking private equity investment. Only once they are producing thousands of litres will they have a better idea of cost, he says. “Palm oil itself is a pretty volatile market, but it retails at anything between $500 to $1,200 (£370–£890) [a tonne] … We would be looking at that $1,000-a-tonne end, that’s where we’d want to be.”

University of Bath chemical engineers are working on developing an alternative to palm oil from yeast. Photograph: Nic Delves-Broughton/ University/PA

The question is whether people would be prepared to pay more for products without palm oil. Chuck says it’s hard to know how much of a “green boost” the yeast product would give, but says he has had “so much interest from companies all over the world wanting this sustainable alternative”.

He hopes the project will reach commercialisation stage in two to four years, but sees two main obstacles. One is getting the product through the approvals process of the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Union, which he predicts will be “expensive and time-consuming”. The other is scaling up, “making sure we can still produce a very high quantity of oil at that scale and that the product quality is the same”.

Herein lies a key problem in the search for an innovative alternative to palm oil, says Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr. While any alternative to palm oil, and vegetable oil more generally, is to be welcomed, he says, “I think you have to be quite beady eyed about the challenges of getting from the lab to commercial production, and particularly commercial production on the sort of scale that’s going to impact the palm oil industry.”

There isn’t a solution around the corner to solve the negative impacts of palm oil, says Parr, and while this research is to be encouraged, he says: “We shouldn’t imagine for a moment there is a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card for the tricky corporate and political transition that needs to be taking place in countries where palm oil is a major damager of important forests.”

As for Ecover, Domen says the company has been looking at alternatives to palm oil made from waste sources, although he wouldn’t be drawn on what these sources might be and how far along the project was. Would they rethink algae if it could produce oil without being genetically modified? Absolutely, he says, subject to asking all the right questions. “Technology is evolving very fast, I am quite hopeful we will get to something in the next two to three years.”


Photo: Algae growing in a bioreactor created by SPACE10 and exhibited at CHART art fair in Copenhagen. Photograph: Niklas Adrian Vindelev

View original article at: From algae to yeast: the quest to find an alternative to palm oil





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