I’ve been interested in algae for many years, since algae are unique and versatile organisms whose biomass can have a wide variety of uses. The prospects for leveraging algae to tackle food security, energy security, complex chemical synthesis and most significantly, climate change, are stimulating billions in investments and making the emerging algae industry very interesting to follow.
The Algae Biomass Organization (ABO) Summit recently brought the algae industry to Washington, DC. The summit ran from Wednesday through Friday, and it spawned several additional side-events related to algae. On Tuesday there was a roundtable discussing the value of using algae to address global food security, on Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted a public workshop to receive input on regulating new algae biotechnologies, and on Thursday the Wilson Center organized a panel to discuss how algae could be used to mitigate climate change. Collectively, these events amounted to “Algae Week.”
Here are five key thoughts I am taking away from a thought-provoking algae week.
1.) Algae are not always what they seem
Although algae technically represent a diverse group of eukaryotic organisms characterized as non-flowering plants lacking roots, leaves and stems, the term “algae” has been functionally expanded to include certain, characteristically similar, prokaryotic microorganisms as well. The functional interpretation of “algae” obviously includes all organisms that are literally algae (including seaweed, diatoms, etc.), but it extends to certain microorganisms that capture and use inorganic carbon.
Algenol Biofuels, LanzaTech and Solazyme are three prominent algae biotechnology companies that attended and discussed their businesses during the ABO Summit. The unique biotechnologies they described highlight the broad diversity of microorganisms and end products that the algae industry encompasses. Ironically, Algenol Biofuels (with “Alg” in its name) and LanzaTech, both members of the Algae Biomass Organization, do not even use “algae” in their processes to produce low carbon renewable fuels. In fact, each of these companies use very different types of engineered bacteria to capture carbon from waste gases – Algenol uses photosynthetic bacteria (cyanobacteria) whereas LanzaTech uses non-photosynthetic bacteria.
By contrast, Solazyme, which does in fact use “algae” to produce its products, uses a non-photosynthetic strain requiring nutrients and carbon from other biomass sources (sugar from sources like sugarcane). Moreover, while Algenol and LanzaTech discussed biofuel platforms, Solazyme chose to discuss the potential for using their algae platforms to produce high-quality food-grade oil or protein alternatives.
The takeaway here is that, in the eyes of the algae industry, algae are not always algae, they are not always photosynthetic, and they are not always used as a feedstock for biofuel.
2.) The algae industry is neither narrowly or easily defined
Microalgae production systems can generate copious amounts of biomass on a relatively small footprint of land. In fact, as compared to terrestrial bioenergy crops, algacultural production could generate as much or more than 2,000% more biomass per acre. And beyond the potential for greater biomass yields, algacultural production can take place on degraded and less productive land not suitable for traditional crops, and in certain circumstances, can make use of wastewater and waste gases as inputs. Further, the uniquely evolved metabolism of algae can be engineered and exploited to synthesize large volumes of valuable products including oils, organic acids, alcohols, and complex chemicals. DHA Omega 3, for example, which is found in a wide range of food products and nearly all infant formula on the market today, is produced by microalgae during fermentation processes.
Given the high productivity of algaculture, its ability to utilize marginal land and waste inputs, and its product versatility, it is difficult to relegate the algae industry to a single portion of the economy. And algae’s performance in these diverse roles is particularly amenable to enhancement using new techniques in biological systems engineering. In fact, there is a role for algae as a platform to generate low carbon renewable fuels for our energy sector, food and feed for our agricultural sector, complex chemicals and plastics for our chemical industries, and/or new drugs and supplements for our pharmaceutical industry.
The takeaway here is that new algae biotechnologies have the potential to efficiently use scarce resources and spare agricultural land while offering a platform to produce numerous value added products more sustainably. Algae is already playing a role across multiple sectors of our economy and is poised to expand in breadth and scale in the years to come.
3.) Carbon capture and utilization is a thing, and for the algae industry, it’s kind of a big deal
Carbon capture and utilization (CCU) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) are strategies to manage or mitigate climate emissions, and have received greater attention lately as the EPA identified both CCU and CCS as options for meeting performance standards under its recently finalized power plant rule. Most significantly, EPA called out algae as a biological mechanism to capture carbon from power plant flue gas.
Since algae can capture and use carbon dioxide to generate biomass, biofuel, oils and other chemicals, algaculture systems will likely be used by various industrial emitters of carbon dioxide to mitigate their emissions. Algae-based CCU and CCS will be good for these companies, the environment, and with the right incentives and environmental attributes, a lucrative part of the algae industry.
Thetake away here is that CCU and CCS are considered major components of the algae industry right now, and new algae biotechnologies may significantly alter how we address climate change in the years to come.
4.) Co-localization is not always a requirement
Although a concentrated CO2 source is commonly thought of as standard part of algaculture systems, this is not always the case. The perceived expansion limits associated with co-localizing algaculture systems and industrial carbon emitters can be addressed in two ways. Both heterotrophic algaculture systems (systems that use sugar rather than CO2 as feedstock) and configurations that allow algae to directly capture CO2 from the air avoid the requirement of co-localization, which may greatly expand the potential for developing algaculture systems.
Advances in this area need to be made. First, we must ensure that heterotrophic algaculture systems can be supplied with sugars derived from sustainable cellulosic or waste sources, and second, direct air CO2 capture systems need to be piloted, tested, and optimized at scale. However, the future looks promising, and any perception that algae systems must be co-located may become an outdated paradigm.
The takeaway here is that severing the link between carbon source and algaculture system will make the algae industry more versatile and it will make the overall impact of algae biotechnology much greater.
5.) There is a need for more algae research and more thoughtful consideration for how best to use algae biomass
Algae represent a huge number of macro- and microorganisms that function in very different ways and produce very different types of biomass and end products. This diversity has implications for how we view and approach algaculture system research. New analyses need to better inform how to develop and expand algacultural production and how best to use the resulting biomass. For example, a common view for how to address climate change using algae biomass involves displacing petroleum oil with algae oil. However, while this may be a perfectly reasonable approach in some cases, the characteristics of algae biomass can also make it a useful source of protein for food and feed. And displacing feed rather than petroleum may actually confer greater climate emissions reductions in some cases, which suggest algae biomass should not always be forced through a fuel feedstock lens.
More algae research should be supported. This research will include studies into how to control and optimize algae biomass characteristics, and should look at how algae biomass can be best used to address resource constraints and balance global demands for food and fuel.
A holistic and nuanced view of algae is needed because just as certain algae can be amenable as a platform for oil and fuels, still others may be more useful to produce food, feed, chemicals, or pharmaceuticals. The takeaway here is that we need to understand the biomass resources we produce and make the best use of those resources.