For starters, what hashtags best define who you are and/or your ambitions in the microalgae space?
#Algae #Innovation #ClimateChange #Sustainability #ClimateChange Mitigation #CarbonCapture #Accelerator #Bioproducts #Bioplastics
We’ve got to find opportunities for mass carbon removal, not just boutique carbon removal …
How did you get so deeply involved in microalgae being the head of an institute addressing climate change?
As a photobiologist who has been working on coral bleaching and Antarctic sea-ice research for many years, I’ve watched the degradation of our most vulnerable ecosystems. About 7 years ago, I pivoted my research focus to algae biotechnology, to find novel ways for algae to capture CO2 and in so doing address climate change. The Climate Change Cluster (C3) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) is focused on examining climate change impacts and adaptations; however, with our increased activity around algae we are now developing industrial solutions that will strip CO2 out of the atmosphere and incorporate it into a wide range of products. We are helping industries to develop algae-based products which gives consumers more sustainable choices – allowing them to purchase carbon-neutral and carbon-negative products. This explains why a climate-based research group is working with plastics, food, building products, and wide range of industrial applications you wouldn’t normally assume that a climate research group does.
Are you mostly focused on microalgae or microalgae?
We work with both macroalgae and microalgae. Macroalgae is a much more established industry in Australia; whereas I think there is a lot of scope for innovation and disruption of unsustainable industries using microalgae. With over 300,000 species of microalgae, there is immense genetic and metabolic diversity that we can harness to generate sustainable products that are useful to society. At UTS, we are setting up the world’s first high-throughput algae phenomics facility. We will be able to screen the phenotypic plasticity of hundreds of algal species, so that we can understand how its genetics controls the variability of a species to its environmental conditions.
At the moment, the entire microalgae industry is based around about 10-20 commonly used species and over the past decades their optimal growth conditions have been clearly defined. Using this facility, we can explore the untouched diversity of new species. We also have plans to use the facility for industrial applications where we challenge the phenotypic tolerance of an algae to force its cellular machinery to produce novel compounds or metabolites.
And so you’re operating an accelerator for startups specializing in microalgae. How have you been going along doing that?
We have been very fortunate to have state government support for the Deep Green Biotech Hub. At present Australia is behind Europe and the US in establishing algae-based startups. What I want to achieve through the Deep Green Biotech Hub is to break down the barriers between entrepreneurs, industry and researchers. This has hindered Australian innovation in the algal biotech space. For a startup in algae there are big technical hurdles to get access to equipment and expertise, that’s why we called our accelerator the “Deep Green” Biotech Hub. It’s not just the green biotech hub, it’s deep tech: you’ve got to be able to get access to the right technology, so that you can actually prove that you can make the biomass, so the business is viable.
It has been a fantastic opportunity to open up the university to entrepreneurs and SMEs, to allow them to see what they need to do with their algae, for them to talk to experts, to clarify their ideas, so that they can start their new companies. Many entrepreneurs have out-there ideas that may or may not make technical sense, but having access to the accelerator allows them to test their ideas and shift towards more tractable solutions without compromising their IP.
The ultimate focus being carbon capture potential…
I think the future is carbon capture and use, not carbon capture and storage. One example is a local brewery called Young Henry’s. The relationship between C3 and Young Henry’s has been hugely successful and for me it has been very transformative. The brewery is an inner-city, craft brewery, and they appeal to younger people who want to make sure that their lifestyle choices are sustainable. We have helped them capture their CO2 by making algal biomass. This is a great example of how industry can become more sustainable, but what I want to do, is not simply capture carbon, but also make products. I’m very pleased with this translation of our research into industry. We’ve also got a lot of research activity around bio-plastics and polymer products.
A lot of our current research is moving into the circular (algal) bioeconomy. With the circular bioeconomy, were we are taking waste and making new products. For example, if a company already has to pay to dispose of its liquid waste, we could use algae to capture carbon, whilst cleaning their wastewater, and also removing toxins. Using algae in a circular bioeconomy offers a much better financial strategy than trying to use algae to make a commodity product. But my ultimate goal in the next couple of years is to move algae into the commodity area, because we’ve got to find opportunities for mass carbon removal, not just boutique carbon removal if we are to fix climate change. Mass carbon removal is not economical at present, but we’re talking to companies at the moment who want thousands of tonnes of dry algal biomass to make their products. Those kinds of numbers are serious: but there aren’t enough commercial algal farmers to make that much biomass.
You mentioned building products. I’ve been seeing many architectural designs including integrated photobioreactors coming from Australia and elsewhere, and I must say that, right now, I’m quite sceptical about this specific use as it seems both impractical and lacking economic sense…
Photobioreactors attached to the outside of buildings is a vision of the future. And it is not economically viable at present. However, we need to involve the building industry in the circular bioeconomy. The building industry will be part of the green recovery, given that we have to be able to capture massive amounts of carbon using microalgae and store that carbon—building products would be a great place to start. So it’s not just about having algae on the outside of the building: it’s the algae-based products on the inside of the building that really matters.
Imagine producing algae-based products that go inside buildings, such as tables, carpets, and wall fixtures. If they can be made from carbon-negative or carbon-neutral compounds, then that’s a good way to sequester atmospheric carbon. We’re envisioning thousands and thousands of tonnes of algae-based plastics being used inside buildings. Based on a buildings’ lifecycle, that means we’ll be taking carbon out of the atmosphere for 30 to 40 years. It’s not going to be forever, but wouldn’t it be great to make a product that is biodegradable in say 30 to 40 years and when the building is knocked down, the carbon linked to those products simply returned to the environment?
The petrochemical industry makes thousands of plastic products that could also use algae polymers. We can insert sustainable raw materials straight into those industrial production lines; we don’t have to retrofit the factories, we just swap the petrochemical-based plastic pellets for algae-based plastic pellets. These can be used to make hard plastics, durable plastics, biodegradable plastics, films and so on.
I’m also curious about your work into sea-ice algae. I don’t see how you could do much with them in Australia, but do you believe there are any industrial application to be foreseen in that space?
I think you’re right there is not much scope for ice algae in Australia, but let’s see them as one form of extremophile algae. If an alga grows in the ice, it’s going to have a fantastic armoury of novel enzymes. Now where can we use those enzymes? Perhaps we could extract some unusual enzymes that could be used as laundry detergents for low-temperature washing or as freezing compounds for food. So, algae that grows in weird places is really important for us to bioprospect and to understand what industrial opportunities/products they can offer us. Unfortunately, because of climate change, the real opportunities for algae extremophiles are on the other end of the thermal spectrum, with algae growing at temperatures of 50 to 60 °C. For example, how can we grow an alga in a desert environment with extremely high temperatures, and produce protein or plastics for instance? Once again, these opportunities come from the diversity and flexibility of algal biochemistry.
As a final note, what kind of profiles would you be most willing to get in touch with?
I’d love to hear from algae farmers who are growing biomass, I’d really like to learn about their production pathway, who transforms their algae paste into a new product.
Connect with me on LinkedIn.
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