Algal biofuel was a biotech disaster: A victim of over-hyping the potential of the field and over-eager VCs clamoring to get in on a hot new trend. But it was not an unmitigated disaster. Many algal biofuel companies pivoted successfully to exploit other valuable algal products, opening up the market of algal-based foods beyond Asia and into western markets and novel products. Now algae are poised to make a comeback.
“I think that they are heavily underused and heavily undervalued. The fact that it is becoming very hot in the market right now has everything to do with their ability to use, for example, carbon dioxide, and the extensive possibilities that algae have – they are plants! It’s as simple as that,” Dr. Rob Agterberg of Back of the Yard Algal Sciences (BYAS) says.
The algal bloom
Between 2005 and 2012, hundreds of millions of dollars was poured into the promising field of algae-derived biofuels. Companies sprung up around technology to extract oil from these simple seaweeds. Under the right conditions, algae can produce high quantities of lipids. The key was to find high-lipid producing strains and extract and process those lipids into fuel at a low enough cost to out-compete the existing price of oil. The industry was helped by the rising price of oil in the mid-2000s, peaking during the 2008 financial crisis at $150 a barrel.
Cracks in the algal biofuel promise began to form in 2009 as the oil price dropped. Difficulties in harvesting, drying and extracting those valuable lipids cost more in energy than the oils coming out. Algal biofuels were simply uneconomical. Despite this, companies like Algenol, Solazyme and Solix were convinced they could bring the costs down and produce barrels of algae-derived fuels in their millions by 2012. When the inevitable happened, these companies turned their algae expertise to nutrition.
A new hope
There are about 60,000 known strains of algae, microalgae and photosynthetic cyanobacteria commonly called blue-green algae. Chlorella, a species of microalgae, is already on the market as a flour and the cyanobacterial species Spirulina is now a household name in the west, having enjoyed much use in Asia for centuries. Because algae can grow simply on carbon dioxide and light, they are attractive to companies looking at generating protein from greenhouse gases. One such company is BYAS in Chicago who aim to use waste carbon dioxide to produce algae for flour, colorants and growth factors.
“Our aim is to develop a plant-based growth serum. If you look at all the developments in cultured meat that has everything to do with a serum based on animals: fetal bovine serums,” says Agterberg.
Fetal bovine serum is expensive and raises ethical concerns as it is harvested from unborn calves. BYAS have made surprising progress with their algae-derived growth serum, which also appears to work with plant cells.
“We’re currently growing plants – roots – in the lab. We grow ginseng and wasabi, real wasabi, which is in itself a very difficult to grow. Wasabi is extremely expensive. We started as a joke and we were baffled by the results,” Agterberg explains, adding they have also grown fish cells alongside wasabi cells in the serum. “As a food it is ridiculous but as a test it is brilliant,” he says.
A potentially major product is phycocyanin, a potent and food-safe blue dye that gives Spirulina its blue-green color. BYAS has developed a novel extraction process to remove phycocyanin, which allows production of a colorless, odorless algae-based flour that is also high in protein (50-70%). UK-based Algenuity is also developing algae-based flour using Chlorella vulgaris strains which produce a variety of colors. Protein content in these strains ranges from 25-40%. Chlorella is a popular target species, with some strains capable of producing B vitamins, vitamin E and carotenoids such as astaxanthin.
Astaxanthin is a popular target for companies pivoting from algal-biofuels to the ingredients market due to its lipid-soluble properties. It is a valuable food dye, used as the pink coloring added to farmed salmon, chicken and eggs. Omega-3 oils are another attractive target for the former fuel companies, with Solix and Corbion – the company that bought the remnants of Solazyme after their collapse – leading in this area. Algenol also pivoted into this area but have expanded into providing algae-based cosmetics ingredients too.
Outside of nutrition and cosmetics, algae are presenting new opportunities for biomaterials. Checkerspot in California have developed engineered microalgae that can produce very high lipid content (up to 70%) which can be extracted and processed into high-value oils with unique properties such as hydrophobicity. Their goal is to create novel coatings derived from these algal oils for use in clothing that are less toxic than the fluorinated coatings currently in use.
Return of the algae
Through new markets in nutrition, cosmetics and high-value oils, algae are making a comeback. But it’s easy to forget that the prospect of algal biofuels hasn’t gone away. The main difference between the early days of hype is a much more grounded and realistic view of the technology. Support from big petroleum companies remains strong despite past failures. Veteran algal biofuel company Synthetic Genomics, founded by Craig Venter, has a long-standing partnership with ExxonMobil. They are looking at producing 10,000 barrels of oil per day by 2025, a far cry from the millions of barrels suggested ten years ago, but there is renewed promise as extraction technologies improve. As always, the challenge remains making scalability affordable.
“We need to scale up,” says Agterberg, highlighting the world’s need for a more sustainable approach to agriculture and production. Algae can play a role in so many more areas besides fuel, such as nutrition, agriculture, materials and cosmetics, arguably with more potential now than ever before. Like many algae scientists, he is keen to apply these carbon-sinking biofactories to more of the world’s problems, not for commercial gain, but to create a sustainable planet.