Canadian group floats plan for algal omega-3s from dispersed bioreactors harvesting agricultural waste

21-Mar-2014 - By Hank Schultz
A Canadian group believes cattle could help create omega-3s.
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Algae promoters usually talk big: Big ponds, banks of bioreactors, chemical process efficiencies and economies of scale.  A group in Canada is looking at the other end of the spectrum, harnessing a small scale bioreactor technology and making it simple enough that a non technical worker can operate it.

The group’s basic principle is to harvest the waste nutrients from agriculture and turn it into value-added nutraceutical and food and feed ingredients via algae. The idea is being driven by a small group of innovators with the cooperation of the University of Guelph.  The basic idea is to harvest nutrient streams from bioreactors that dot the Canadian landscape that handle the waste from Canada’s plentiful herds of dairy and beef cattle.

 Harvesting omega-3s, proteins and other food-grade ingredients from algae is nothing new, of course. Martek, now part of DSM, was one of the pioneers, using a fermentation-type approach for producing a DHA ingredient that has wide application in the marketplace.  But beyond DSM’s market niche, algae-derived omega-3s have struggled with the cost equation.  It’s hard to compete with the chemical process efficiencies Mother Nature already has in place with the Peruvian anchovy fishery and other marine sources.

Process efficiencies

One of the key parts of making an algal source of omega-3s successful is getting the nutrients the single-celled organisms need at low or no cost.  This is why most algae installations are located close to industrial sources of waste carbon dioxide, which can boost algal growth. In the Canadian scenario, the waste from the digesters (suitably treated to kill pathogens) performs this function.

Another key aspect of algal development is finding ways to make the process cost effective.  A dizzying array of technologies is available: open ponds, closed bioreactors, or a mix, and phototrophic or heterotrophic organisms (or a mix of these, too). But finding a way to scale these up at a reasonable cost has always been a hurdle.  That’s why some algal operators, like Israel’s Qualitas Health, are only looking at the biggest scales.  Qualitas is building an open pond system near Midland, TX, and has designed its process so that it can be replicated with fairly crude means.

“If I can’t do it with a bulldozer, I don’t want to do it at all,” said Isaac Bezin, PhD, founder and chief technology officer of Qualitas.

Cottage industry for farmers

The informal consortium at present consists of Symbiotic Enviortek, which is driving the algae technology platform and Grober Inc, a food ingredients and feed and agricultural services firm, which is tackling the integration of the systems into existing agricultural operations.  The group believes that the algal bioreactor system it has under development can be harnessed to these waste streams, and that a dairy farmer, for example, could periodically ship drums of algal biomass off along with his daily milk shipment.

“That’s the vision. If the costs are reasonable and we can set up the infrastructure you might be able to produce the algae to a point where you’d have a truck come periodically to pick it up,” Neil Ross, PhD, vice president of research at Symbiotic Enviortek told NutraIngredients-USA.

“Getting those costs down is one of the major things we are facing,” Ross said. Another challenge, too, is to make the system simple enough that a typical dairy farmer could operate it. These farmers will have some technical expertise to start with, keeping automatic milking machines running and so forth, but asking them to become algae culture experts is probably a non-starter, Ross admitted.

The group is in negotiations with a company that will supply the algae, Ross said.  The initial target is to derive omega-3s from the biomass of a phototrophic strain, and to use the leftover, high-protein meal as a human food or animal nutrition ingredient. Also under consideration is whether the farmers would own the systems outright, whether they'd be held as a cooperative or whether they'd be leased out, Ross said.

“Once we get this nailed down, we’ll have it so it can it be transferred to a lay person who doesn’t need to know all the ins and outs of the algae. We’ll supply the recipes, the nutrient mixtures and the chemical oversight,” he said.

Another key aspect of the concept is the closed bioreactors, Ross said. This will provide the traceability and purity that will be key to a food application. And the ingredients that could come from such a setup would have a strong sustainability message, too, he said.

Workshop planned

The group’s next order of business is to arrange a workshop on the concept, which is tentatively scheduled for the summer at the Unviersity of Guelph. Potential participants would include regulatory officials, producers and potential buyers of the ingredients. The goal is to air all of the issues, both technical and regulatory, that might impact algae production in Canada.

“We are starting at a disadvantage in comparison to the States, Israel and the EU,” Ross said, where algae production for human food ingredients is already commonplace. “What information do regulatory agencies need to make informed decisions? The idea is to start now so that in a year and a half to two years the companies involved will know that if you follow these steps, you’ll get certification.  We want to take the best practices from other jurisdictions and adapt them to the Canadian system.”

For more information on the workshop, contact Ross Blaine at Grober Inc.

Related topics: Suppliers, Omega-3s & Nutritional oils