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  • Writer's pictureTamar Zur

How to increase food production, save arable land usage and improve carbon footprint?

Mighty solutions from a single cell marine plant- The Australian micro-algae industry

Micro-algae is gaining prominence as a next-gen transformative solution to produce sufficient protein to feed the world's growing population over the next 30 years and reduce harvesting of the ocean's fish resources for omega-3 oils. Australia has the skill set and optimal climate to develop a sustainable and droughtproof multi-billion dollar industry. Micro-algae are far more productive than conventional crops, with many times more protein production per acre; they do not require arable land and can grow exponentially fast.

Intro: Algae is an aquatic plant that converts sun energy into nutrients. Single-cell Algae called micro-algae, and multicellular classified as Macroalgae, often called seaweed. Micro-algae are photosynthetic microorganisms, invisible to the naked eye and the primitive ancestors of plants. They thrive in oceans, rivers, and lakes and have adapted to live even in glaciers and deserts. By converting light energy into chemical energy using carbon dioxide, micro-algae produce oxygen & nutrients. They constitute less than 1% of the Earth's biomass but produce about 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Importantly, micro-algae are far more productive than conventional crops, with many times more protein production per acre; they do not require arable land and can grow exponentially fast.

Micro-algae cultivation involves the farming of species, in the ocean or inland, in ponds, tanks or bioreactor, in an open or closed environment. It has the power to simultaneously put fuels in our vehicles, recycle CO2, provide nutrition for animals and people, serve as a model organism in biotechnology research and for use in a wide array of industries and applications like biofuels, biofertilizers, bioplastic and many more. To date, there are more than 50,000 identified species. Still, less than ten are intensively cultivated for commercial purposes worldwide (for example, Spirulina, Chlorella spp, Dunaliella salina, Nannochloropsis spp, and Haematococcus spp).

Micro-algae are gaining prominence as a next-gen transformative solution to produce sufficient protein to feed the world's growing population over the next 30 years and reduce harvesting of the ocean's fish resources for omega-3 oils. Australia has the skill set and optimal climate to develop a sustainable and droughtproof multi-billion dollar industry. Companies cultivating micro-algae to extract high-value oils, carbohydrates, and alternative protein are increasing their efforts to tap into Australia's extensive biological diversity that can be leveraged to produce various bioproducts.

Micro-algae Market: The global micro-algae industry started to develop in the '70s, and the top producers are based in the United States, Japan, China, Israel, Britain, several European countries, with Australian companies now emerging as future significant players. Methods of micro-algae cultivation vary with the selected species and the prevailing climate. Closed photobioreactor systems to cultivate autotrophic micro-algae are commonly used in countries with harsh winters. They may be installed in heated glasshouses or warehouses, but capital and operational expenses are high. Closed fermentation is also expensive to establish and operate but used by several companies to cultivate heterotrophic micro-algae in the absence of light for extraction of DHA omega-3 oils. Cultivation of autotrophic marine micro-algae in open outdoor raceway ponds requires sunlight and clean sources of salty tidal river water, both of which are plentiful in Australia. The micro-algae market may be segmented by products (pigments like B-carotene, astaxanthin, fatty acids like omega-3, omega-6, bio-fertilizers and others), by applications (food & beverages, personal care, nutraceuticals & dietary supplements, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, fuel etc.), or by cultivation method (open systems vs closed systems). The wholesale price per kg of algal-based products ranges between $150 for algal oil to $12,000 for astaxanthin. The value of the global micro-algae market (including all products and applications) is expected to reach $4.2 Bn by 2031, expanding at a CAGR of ~6%. Currently, nine micro-algae companies operate in Australia, but one multinational Company (BASF), dominate the vast majority of Australian production. The Australian micro-algae producers are developing new technologies for Nannochloropsis spp intensive cultivation, concentrated in the southeast Queensland area and most in collaboration with Professor Peer Schenk from The University of Queensland.

There is a significant opportunity to expand and diversify the Australian micro-algae industry and leverage the competitive advantages into sustainable commercial and profitable production.

Strengths: Australia is an ideal place for micro-algae cultivation. Long coastal line, tidal rivers, and plenty of sunny days per year. It has enough natural resources to cultivate and feed the global population with micro-algae.

Weaknesses: Emerging micro-algae producers must overcome three major obstacles.1. Investment of capital to fund the required infrastructure, including cultivation systems, harvesting and extraction equipment. 2. cross-disciplinary knowledge regarding cultivating protocols, new technologies, post-processing on a commercial scale, regulations, and marketing. 3.the location and environmental conditions. In some countries, labour costs are low, allowing low-tech, high labour solutions, whereas, in developed countries with high labour costs like Australia, high-tech solutions are necessary to ensure profitability.

From top left to right 1. Micro-algae cells under the microscope 2. Micro-algae solution before separation 3. Micro-algae dry powder. 4. The University of Queensland algae energy farm, raceway ponds 5. Algal-based Omega-3 (fish-free source) 6. Dunaliella salina is grown in the pink lakes at Hutt Lagoon in Western Australia

Australian micro-algae overview:

BASF the pioneers

Founded in 1865 in Germany, and operates globally as a chemical company. They operate through six business segments, including agricultural, chemicals, plastics, oil and gas, etc. in 2010, BASF acquired an Australian micro-algae company for €3.1bn and became the world's largest producer of algal beta-carotene. Grown and harvested from pink lakes at Hutt Lagoon in Western Australia and Whyalla in South Australia. The carotenoids are derived from Dunaliella salina grown in naturally occurring open-air seawater lagoons (see picture 6). This natural colourant has been increasingly used in the food and dietary supplements industries across the world as a healthy replacement for azo-dyes.

Emerging Australian companies:

Qponics Limited

Founded in 2011, based in Brisbane, QLD. Qponics has developed an automated, modular, and therefore scalable process for the droughtproof farming of a marine microalgal species (Nannochloropsis oceanica) to produce high-value oil rich in EPA omega-3 omega-7 fatty acids and protein. Dr Barnett, the CEO at Qponics, is an Australian pioneer in this field, and he brings his biotech expertise to this growing industry. He identifies central coastal eastern Australia as a goldilocks zone for marine micro-algae farming, defined as having summers that are not too hot with warm winters and plentiful, affordable agricultural land next to a clean salty tidal river. Qponics secured a 1-million-dollar CRC-Project grant from the Australian government to build its pilot marine micro-algae farm to validate the cultivation, harvesting and processing systems planned to be built at scale on a site in the Northern Rivers region of NSW. Qponics is also a founding Industry Partner in the MB-CRC (Marine Bioproducts), which, if funded in 2021, will transform Australia's emerging marine bioproducts sector into a globally competitive industry and allow the Company to accelerate new product development over the next 10 years. Qponics has the knowledge, technology and the ideal location to build a large-scale droughtproof marine micro-algae farming and product processing facility, subject to raising capital. Board of directors: Dr Graeme Barnett Managing Director, CEO, Mr Peter Wetzig CFO, Mr Graham Willett Team: Professor Peer Schenk Scientific advisor, Dr Swaminathan Detchanamurthy CTO, Mr Dylan Kreis Algae Farm Manager

The Woods Group is a pioneering Australian agribusiness that has partnered with The University of Queensland to further diversify its operations by establishing an onsite algae farm. Algae Pharm, based in QLD and farming Nannochloropsis oculata. Funded by the Queensland Government's Advance Queensland Biofutures Commercialisation Program, the groundbreaking project involves trialling new technology to extract omega-3 oil from algae to serve as a sustainable alternative for fish oil and a protein source for the stockfeed industry.

Has Algae

Founded in 2019, Has Algae aims to alleviate common nutritional deficiencies associated with plant-based diets, especially omega-3 fatty acids. Has Algae is a startup based in Brisbane, Sydney and Hong Kong, aiming to disrupt the plant protein and omega-3 industry for agriculture by making ordinary foods into superfoods with the nutritional power of micro-algae. Has Algae raised an undisclosed pre-seed round in May 2019. Founded by Tim Gardner (CEO), Brendan Fu (CFO) and Professor Peer Schenk (CSO).

Provectus Algae

Founded in 2018 and based in Noosa, QLD, an Australian biotech company that programs algae to produce the world's most valuable specialty ingredients. By accelerating nature, their team can optimize unique micro-algae to make a whole new range of natural products in a process described as "precision photosynthesis". Using next-generation techniques, the Company has also developed a synthetic biology stack that complements and competes with existing production platforms to deliver high-performance and sustainable products. In October 2020, Provectus raised USD 3.3 million. Team: Nusqe Spanton, Founder CEO, David Williams Chairman Board of Director, Tom Himstedt, Non-Executive Director; Ryan Bethencourt Board member, Roslyn Hendriks, Adviser Biotechnology & Commercialisation, Garry Redlich, Adviser Biotechnology & Technical Scale-up, Kevin Grant, Adviser Regulatory Requirements

Ocean pure Australia produces a range of Nannochloropsis oceanica health and beauty products that support a healthy, active lifestyle.

Ocean Orchards is a Sunshine Coast based start-up. Its mission is to provide high end sustainable algae-based food products.

Phytality based in Byron Bay and produce Fish Free Omega-3 & Wholefood Multivitamin 'All-in-One.'

Essential Greens, founded in 2018, engaged with GeoLINK to gain development approval for their proposed algae farm in the Tweed region of Northern Rivers NSW. Dr Skye Thomas Hall is the CTO at Essential Greens.

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