Correction: This post has been updated since it was published on June 15, 2018, to reflect how Royal Dutch Shell and Department of Energy grant was used, the attributes of algae and the uses of algae through those studies.
Charles Greene is a climate scientist who looks at the impact of climate on marine ecosystems. He's a Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University and member of the Marine Algae Industrialization Consortium (MAGIC) which has a grant from the Department of Energy to look into the commercial viability of algal biofuels.
In February 2018, Greene presented his views on how algae could provide solutions to the grand global challenges of the 21st century (energy, climate, and food security) at the American Geophysical Union’s biannual ocean sciences meeting, in Portland, Oregon.
What's so great about algae? It grows 10 times more rapidly than terrestrial plants, and less than a tenth of the land is needed to produce an equivalent amount of biomass. It grows on non-productive and non-arable land, so it doesn't compete with other crops for land. Because it doesn't require fresh water, it can be fertilized more efficiently than land crops, and you can avoid the intensive water usage, wasteful fertilizer runoff, and downstream eutrophication associated with modern agriculture.
"Microalgae grow much faster than land plants and can be a source of biofuel that makes sense environmentally and economically if valuable co-products are produced simultaneously," said Greene.
Greene believes that algae could be the answer to all of those challenges providing a valuable source of carbon-neutral fuels, aquafeeds for the agriculture and aquaculture industries, and high-protein food products for direct human consumption.
"Over the last decade, Greene and his colleagues were funded by Royal Dutch Shell and the Department of Energy to look for a commercially viable way to produce biofuels using microalgae.
"We asked ourselves what was the environment going to be like when we couldn't use fossil fuels anymore. Finding out that producing algae just for biofuels would be too expensive, we looked at co-products that could be created simultaneously while producing the fuel," said Greene. "After you remove the lipids from the algae, we looked at what you could do with what's left and discovered you could use the 'defatted' algal biomass as a highly nutritional supplement in aquafeeds for salmon and white shrimp and animal feed for chicken and swine."
"Then we asked ourselves if we wanted to produce all of the fuels that the world currently needs, then how much land would we need, and how much protein could we co-produce?" said Greene. "On a global scale, we could meet the current liquid fuel demands by growing algae in an area slightly less than three times the size of Texas. At the same time, we could also produce 10 times the amount of protein as produced with soy from all over the world."
"By 2050 we will have 9.5 to 10 billion people in the world, and with algae, we've found a way to feed those people by producing a large amount of protein. Maybe we won't convince the Western world to change its diet immediately, but we do have a way to combat malnutrition in the developing world, and that alone makes it interesting," said Greene.
Greene takes both a fuel-based and environmental approach to algae.
"If you look at this from a carbon neutral perspective - not introducing any new Co2 into the atmosphere - times have changed, and energy markets continue to evolve," adds Greene. "Most of the light vehicle fleet will be electrified by 2030 to 2050, and there won't be as much of a need for liquid fuels, on the other hand, there will still be a need for jet aviation and shipping in the foreseeable future, and of course there will always be a need for food."
"Regarding other global challenges, like food security and maintaining biodiversity, if we have the potential to produce higher quality, more nutritious food in less area to meet
our needs with algae rather than terrestrial plants, then this has huge implications of land use," said Greene. "The demand for clearing rainforests to grow soy and palm in places like Brazil and Indonesia would disappear, then why wouldn't we choose that path?"
We can produce the same amount of food and more from the land that's already developed and gain several environmental advantages at the same time, that's huge," added Greene.
"Many high-value, niche-market products are already being produced because algae possess unusual nutritional, anticarcinogenic, and anti-inflammatory properties. People have been selling these kinds of specialty algal products for a while, but these markets are relatively small. In contrast, we are looking at commodity markets that are large and will scale together. That is the only way that we will be able to solve global-scale problems," said Greene.
"We have about 10-15 years left to address our global climate, energy, and food security problems because it will take two to three decades to implement them at the necessary scale to solve these global challenges, then it's game over," added Greene.
"One 2,500 acre commercial algae production facility will cost about 500 million dollars to build, so you can't just go to Silicon Valley to make that happen. Right now companies are growing algae at R& D or demonstration scale, and small, niche-market companies are growing algae at comparable scales, but no one is doing it large scale appropriate for commodity markets," said Greene.
Mariliis Holm is the co-founder and Chief Science Officer of Nonfood, an early stage startup based in Los Angeles with an agenda to create sustainable algae-based foods that reduce agriculture’s resource and carbon footprint. Holm is taking the matter into her own hands at a micro level.
Mariliis Holm, co-founder, Nonfood a Los Angeles startup that's focused on creating food products... [+]
Nonfood’s first product is the Nonbar, an algae-based snack bar that contains 37% algae and aquatic plant ingredients, already higher than any other ready-to-eat food product on the market which stands around 1-2%, by adding Spirulina. It has micro and macronutrients, nine grams of clean protein, antioxidants, vitamin A, calcium and absorbable iron.
"Algae is the most efficient group of organisms on Earth turning CO2, sunlight, and water into densely nutritious food for all living animals for more than 3.5 billion years," said Holm. "The future I envision consist of individuals and communities growing their own algae that can be eaten directly, blended into products or used as a feed for cellular agriculture."
Holm has her own photobioreactor developed by Spira Inc. a DC-based start-up which was founded by Elliot Roth. She says that since 2016, she's been working with the challenge of how to feed planet Earth and Mars in 2050 sustainably and maintain the pleasure of eating.
"Last summer (in 2017), after growing Spirulina, trying the green stuff fresh and using it to develop new food products at the Singularity University’s Global Solution Program focusing on Climate Change at NASA's Ames Research Center, I was convinced that I’ve finally found the solution," said Holm.
"So to accelerate the sustainable and delicious future of food I co-founded Nonfood [..] to create radically sustainable future foods made from algae," said Holm. "I believe that truly innovative and successful food products need to fulfill all of the four following criteria: tackle planet Earth’s health, improve human health through nutrition, be affordable and above all taste delicious."
"Based on a decade of food science studies, research and entrepreneurship in Estonia, Singapore, France, Ireland, Netherlands and US, I am convinced that algae have the highest potential to fulfill all of those," added Holm.
Aerial view of the Imperial, Texas farm, where iWi's algae are grown.
"Algae farming is an extension of what we can do already with conventional agriculture – it isn’t a replacement of other crops, but a highly nutritious addition to what we are already doing," says Dr. Rebecca White, Vice President of Operations, Qualitas Health.
Qualitas Health grows and operates algae farms for its consumer-facing brand which sells algae-based supplements. iWi, which is owned by Qualitas Health has been making algae-based supplements like Omega-3 supplements since 2017.
The company produces Nannochloropsis (a genus of algae grown for its potential as a source of food, feed, and fuel) at commercial scale on open ponds on farms it owns and operates in Imperial, TX and one in Columbus, New Mexico, owned by Green Stream Farms. There is an extraction facility (where the Omega-3 oil is extracted from the algae) in Mexico.
"Our algae, Nanno, is a great source of protein – it’s about 40% protein by mass, with all the essential and branch chained amino acids, and we can produce more per acre than other plant-based sources such as soy or peas," said White. "Most consumers get their Omega-3 from fish-based supplements, but algae farming opens up new nutritional sustainable food sources and caters to the increased demand for plant-based protein and nutrient-rich food products versus relying on over-fished marine ecosystems.
"As consumers continue to demand more sustainable and nutritious dietary options, algae is poised to play a larger role in everyday health. iWi's call to action is to create sustainable, healthy, tasty food solutions that people want to eat – solutions that are compatible with existing and future consumer needs," adds White.
White notes that supplements are undoubtedly just the beginning – protein will be much bigger, and maybe the more critical product.
According to a 2018 report by ReportLinker on the global algae market, the algae products market is projected to be around $4.0 billion in 2018 and grow to $5.2 billion by 2023. The report also notes that during this same time period, 2018 to 2023, algae protein and the nutritional and dietary supplement segment is projected to have the highest growth rate. According to the report, the demand for algae-based food and beverage products is growing. Ice cream manufacturers are starting to add algae to their products to increase the nutritional value of the product.
"Currently, companies are producing a huge range of products from algae – antioxidants, protein, flavors, colorants, etc.," said White. "You can now find algae-based products in the most exclusive restaurants around the world as part of their menus, in cosmetic creams, and in many other products as well."
"Within the next three to five years we are going to find algae in many of our everyday products, turning algae into a multi-billion dollar industry," said White.
White says that for algae businesses seeking to succeed, a primary challenge for Qualitas is to produce economically at scale.
"We're committed to overcoming this challenge with technology and smart farming practices," said White. "To move forward faster, we have focused on collaborating with other companies – both inside the algae industry and outside of it – to find affordable, enabling technologies (such as the harvesting technology) that have become available in recent years, and we have built on the significant amount of work that the algae industry has accumulated in the last six [..] decades."
"For the consumer, we are concerned with not just functionality, but also the best organoleptic properties (flavor, smell, texture)," added White. "For our planet, we are concerned with environmental and social sustainability."
According to Bill Liao, General Partner, SOSV, and Founder, RebelBio.co, microalgae are finally yielding their secrets for efficiently turning light and water into useful materials and foods.
"This is powerful in both mass applications like protein manufacture and also with deep technology players like Microsynbiotix who are manufacturing edible vaccines via microalgae," said Liao. "Microsynbiotix believes that aquaculture is the future of sustainable food production."
Allied Market Research predicts that the aquaculture market will reach $242 billion by 2022 up from $169 billion in 2015.
"The future of all materials, is likely biobased, from alternatives to petroleum-based products that can all be brewed, fermented through to better materials, like Adidas latest prototype, spider silk shoes which have about a 10x stronger than steel strength per weight," said Ryan Bethencourt, CEO, WildEarth and Partner, Babel Ventures. "Where it gets fascinating are the new applications we haven't yet explored like, carbon-based nanowires that can replace metal based wires (originally derived from bacteria) or use new bio-polymers for B2B applications."
Bethencourt references Algiknit, a seed-stage biomaterials company, funded by SOSV that integrates science and design into textile production. The company wants to push the fashion industry into the circular economy with compostable, durable, kelp-driven yarns.
Sea kelp floating off the coast of California.
"The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry on earth, and this has got to change," said Aaron Nesser, Founder, AlgiKnit.
"We aim to operate in a closed loop product lifecycle, utilizing materials with a significantly lower environmental footprint than conventional textiles that also remain biodegradable and even edible, all to bring sustainable bio-based textile alternatives to the footwear and apparel industries," added Nesser.
"Algae are some of the most productive organisms on Earth. They’re able to transform the suns energy into a huge range of useful compounds all while absorbing run-off, sequestering CO2, and improving marine ecosystems when grown in coastal waters," said Nesser. "The nascent kelp farming industry has great potential to improve the coastal ecosystems and economies in areas where overfishing has taken its toll."
"This is the beginning of a whole new range of bio-based materials which are going to transform both consumer fashion including shoes and apparel. We've seen with both Bolt Threads that uses spider's silk and mushroom leather; Modern Meadow (printed leather) and Geltor, that makes a leather-bound book for clean meat that's brewed collagen-based leather," adds Bethencourt.
"I believe that almost all of the major challenges that the world faces, including the need to find solutions to challenges related to power and energy, the need to address aging populations and aging economic infrastructure, the need to address challenges in education and human development, the need to provide sufficient and safe food and water for a growing world population, the need to address challenges of urbanization, the need to address emerging security threats, and the need to promote global economic opportunity will all require technological solutions," said Jim Jeffries, 2018 President and CEO of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
Greene states that the problems the world is facing require significant investments from countries and multi-national corporations.
"In 2007, Royal Dutch Shell put $110 million into our biofuel project which is a lot for R&D in scientific circles, but a drop in the bucket," adds Greene. "We need the big energy companies to think about what it's going to take for them to be in business 15 to 20 years from now. If they don't begin the transition now, then they'll end up with stranded assets and go bankrupt which will have a huge impact on the global economy."
"If we get hit with that, it will be questionable if we still have the financial resources to go forward. If we make a smooth transition away from fossil fuels and to fossil-free energy sources during the next couple of decades, then our kids and future generations will inherit a much healthier society," added Greene.
Greene says that if we're trying to solve the most significant challenges that society faces then we have to do that in an integrated way.
But Mariliis Holm puts it another way.
"If I had one silver bullet for the future of sustainable food, it would be green and loaded with algae," added Holm.