New Horizons: Algae technology comes of age

This article first appeared in Unlisted & Unlimited, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 9, 2015 - February 15, 2015.
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When one thinks of algae, the image that comes to mind is seaweed. Indeed, seaweed accounts for more than 10,000 species of algae. But as there are more than 300,000 specimens of algae out there (and counting), it is clearly much more than just seaweed.

The idea of using algae as a source of food, feed or energy goes back more than half a century. Scientists started looking at algae as a means of producing methane as early as the 1950s. This received a big impetus in the energy crisis in the 1970s, initiating projects to produce gaseous fuels (hydrogen and methane). From 1980 to 1996, the US Department of Energy spent 

US$25 million over 20 years on something known as the Aquatic Species Program (ASP), which was intended to produce oil from microalgae.

The ASP researchers worked primarily on growing algae in open ponds, making significant contributions to the general understanding of growing algae for fuel. Thousands of different species were isolated and tested, and the impact of different nutrient and carbon dioxide concentrations documented. Researchers also addressed the engineering challenges of mass-producing algae. The project was going well, but in 1995, faced with financial constraints and cheap oil, the Department of Energy decided to terminate the programme.

Even so, interest in using algae as a biofuel has far from died down. In fact, market analysis firm Greentech Media Research has predicted that algae biofuels could be produced at a rate of six billion gallons (22.7 billion litres) a year by 2022.

Just last month, US-based Algenol Biofuels received Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification for its algae-derived fuels, which meet the requirements of the renewable fuel standard, making the company eligible for the Renewable Identification Numbers (RIN) needed to begin commercial sales.

Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), which promotes the development of viable technologies and commercial markets for renewable and sustainable products derived from algae, says on its blog that algae-derived fuels, such as those by Algenol, can be made with simple inputs of sunlight, nutrients and carbon dioxide. They can also be grown on marginal lands and without the use of freshwater. In fact, it points out, Algenol’s process produces freshwater as a by-product.

This regulatory approval is an enormous milestone for Algenol and for the algae industry in general. The EPA evaluates advanced biofuels on a number of factors, including what the greenhouse gas reductions for the fuels are certified to achieve.

“The EPA found that Algenol’s fuels come with an astonishing 69% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when compared with gasoline. The ability to use carbon dioxide as a feedstock for fuels can be a game-changer in the fight against climate change. The process, known as carbon utilisation, transforms emissions that were considered a liability into a valuable asset,” it points out. 

In Malaysia, interest in algae was kindled when Algaetech International Sdn Bhd launched the first astaxanthin production facility in Southeast Asia in August last year. The company first looked at the possible use of algae as a biofuel before honing in on its use as a health supplement. 

It is in the process of setting up a plant that will be capable of cultivating 300,000 litres of haemotococcus pluvialis at a time. Haemotococcus pluvialis is a freshwater species of chlorophyta, a type of green algae, well known for its high content of astaxanthin. 

Astaxanthin is a strong antioxidant commonly used in health and beauty-related supplements, such as those for anti-ageing, muscle recovery, anti-cancer and boosting the immunomodulatory effect, meaning it is capable of modifying or regulating one or more immune functions.

Algaetech founder and CEO Datuk Paduka Syed Isa Syed Alwi says that to produce this organism, one has to begin with the cultivation of its cell, by providing a favourable environment for it to grow and feeding it the appropriate culture — a mixture of carbon dioxide, nitrate, phosphate and ammonium.

Once the culture has stimulated the production of millions of cells that have reached maturity, the production team will switch the cultivation environment to one that is less benign with intense lighting, higher salinity and low nutrients.

“It is at this stage that the algae senses the adversity surrounding it and begins to develop a cyst to protect itself. And this is when it produces astaxanthin within itself for hibernation purposes,” Syed Isa tells Unlisted & Unlimited.

In other words, the algae cell produces astaxanthin to protect itself in case its cyst fails or there are circumstances that threaten its survival. With this mechanism in place, the cell is able to shut itself down and hibernate for 120 years.

Within the cultivation canister (which looks like a cylindrical water bag), the haemotococcus pluvialis will begin to turn from green to red, suggesting that it has matured. This is when the harvesting process begins.

Harvesting involves breaking the cyst. Once the cyst is broken, the algae loses its protective shell and becomes sensitive to light and heat. Hence, the subsequent processes have to be done in dim lighting and temperature-controlled environments.

Syed Isa spent US$220,000 (RM799,000) on 350kg cryogenic freeze dryers to dehumidify the mature algae. The gigantic dryer will first freeze the algae at 55°C below freezing point, and subsequently lower the pressure to a range of only few millibars (a unit of pressure), so as to create a vacuum that sublimates (transforms into a gaseous state) the water in the algae. Heat will be applied in this process and more than 95% of the liquid will be sublimated. For this process to take place properly, the temperature has to be regulated to 35°C.  

At the end of the process, which usually takes up to 48 hours, the algae will have become powder with only 3% moisture. This powder is particularly precious, being worth US$15,000 to US$20,000 per kg.

Astaxanthin is 6,000 stronger than vitamin C and is considered the “king of antioxidants” or even the “king of carotenoids”, but it is not as popular as it is very expensive to manufacture. The high initial investment increases the barriers to entry, which is why Algaetech is the only phytochemicals company in Malaysia at the moment to produce the astaxanthin biomass.

Syed Isa says that so far, Algaetech has invested RM27 million in the new line for its antioxidant product. The new plant is poised to increase the company’s algae cultivation capabilities to 1.6 million litres of haemotococcus pluvialis at a time and produce 45 tonnes of biomass annually.

This technology is catching on regionally. By the end of the year, Algaetech will be constructing a similar facility in Brunei that will have a monthly production capacity of 3.5 tonnes of biomass powder by early 2016.

But this is not the only major algae-related project in Malaysia. The Algae Research Lab at Universiti Malaya has embarked on a research project that is paving the way for the production of paper pulp and bioethanol from a species of red seaweed, native to South Korea, known as gelidium.

Professor Dr Phang Siew Moi, director of the university’s Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences, and her colleagues and students are spearheading the project. The process by which pulp is produced from seaweed is far more environmentally friendly than the process of making wood pulp. 

Universiti Malaya is teaming up with the Fisheries Department and South Korean company Pegasus International Inc on this project. Phang met Pegasus founder You Hack Churl at a symposium on seaweed and aquaculture. He had been looking for interested parties to help realise the pulp-making potential of red algae, which he accidentally discovered when he dropped a pot of the boiling jelly. While trying to scrape it off the floor, he found that it had set into a thin, vinyl-like film, giving him the idea of turning it into paper.

It’s all in the fibres. Seaweed fibres are fine, of equal length and smooth while wood fibres are coarse, of unequal length and thick. 

“When you make paper from seaweed pulp, you get very smooth paper with high opacity. The paper from wood fibres is very coarse and you need to use fillers. With red seaweed, you don’t need a filler because the material contains some agar,” Phang was quoted as saying in a local newspaper.

This project was identified as one of the 42 innovative business opportunities by Agensi Inovasi Malaysia in 2012.

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