Scale Up

MTAF farming Haematococcus for astaxanthin in Maui

May 6, 2013, by Eileen Chao
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

Brad Reeves, chief executive manager of Maui Tropical Algae Farm, stands next to a 120-liter bag of Haematococcus algae in “the green stage.” Green algae are kept indoors under low light levels for up to two weeks. Photo: Eileen Chao

Brad Reeves, chief executive manager of Maui Tropical Algae Farm, stands next to a 120-liter bag of Haematococcus algae in “the green stage.” Green algae are kept indoors under low light levels for up to two weeks.
Photo: Eileen Chao

Hawaii-based Maui Tropical Algae Farm (MTAF) is growing Haematococcus pluvialis algae to produce the nutritional supplement astaxanthin at a 21-acre cultivation facility, located in the Kihei Tech Park behind the Kihei Wastewater Reclamation Facility. Fuji Chemical previously owned the operation, but they had to shut it down in 2010 when they became unable to contain contamination to the Haematococcus in their dome-based growing system.

Since Brad Reeves, the chief executive manager of MTAF, purchased the property from Fuji in 2011, he and his team have been working on growing algae in a way that is safer, more cost-efficient and, he says, better for the environment. Instead of growing algae in the domes, which are hard to clean and more susceptible to contamination, MTAF uses 120-liter bags made of polypropylene. If one bag gets contaminated, workers are able to remove the contaminated bag instead of losing the entire batch, he says.

The algae farm strives to be an “off-grid operation,” with little to no waste. The farm recycles old plastic bags and water, makes its own carbon dioxide from local sugar cane, and runs off solar energy harvested from photovoltaic panels located on the property.

The red stage, when the algae are taken outside and left in direct sunlight for up to 20 days, is crucial to astaxanthin production. The algae turn red as they produce astaxanthin as a defense mechanism against the stress of intense sunlight. Photo: Eileen Chao

The red stage, when the algae are taken outside and left in direct sunlight for up to 20 days, is crucial to astaxanthin production. The algae turn red as they produce astaxanthin as a defense mechanism against the stress of intense sunlight.
Photo: Eileen Chao

“We’re the only algae farm in the world that is 100 percent carbon-neutral and petroleum-free,” said Reeves, who has more than 30 years of experience in renewable energy technologies. “Nobody else in the world is growing algae like we are.” By using renewable energy technologies, Reeves has been able to cut energy costs and energy consumption by 95 percent, he said.

The process starts in the lab, where algae are cultivated in petri dishes. They are then transferred to the nursery, or the green stage, where the algae are put into large bags, hung from the ceiling and kept indoors under low-light levels for up to two weeks. All the while, the bags are being pumped with a steady stream of carbon dioxide, which Reeves makes in-house by distilling it from sugar cane he buys on the island. “We’re pretty much making rum,” he jokes. “One pound of alcohol produces 19 pounds of carbon dioxide.”

After the green stage, the bags of algae are transferred outdoors for up to 20 days, when the algae start to turn red. The algae produce astaxanthin as a protective mechanism against the environmental stress caused by intense sunlight. The algae are then harvested and dried.

Reeves and his staff are still experimenting with the process, but he expects to be growing and selling his algae, wholesale, by the end of 2014. He estimates that the farm will be able to produce about 10,000 kilos of algae each year. Commercially, the algae can command up to $12,000 per kilo.

The old acrylic domes used by Fuji Chemical were costly, bulky and hard to clean, making them more susceptible to contamination. These are no longer in use. Photo: Eileen Chao

The old acrylic domes used by Fuji Chemical were costly, bulky and hard to clean, making them more susceptible to contamination. These are no longer in use.
Photo: Eileen Chao

A Hawaiian neighbor, Kailua-Kona’s Cyanotech Corp., is one of the largest producers of astaxanthin in the world. Last year, the company sold about $16 million in astaxanthin products, according to company spokesman Bruce Russell. “Demand is growing steadily in the U.S. and worldwide as more studies demonstrate its value for human health,” Russell said.

Cyanotech has discussed buying Haematococcus biomass from MTAF in the future, once the farm is fully operational, according to Gerry Cysewski, Cyanotech’s chief science officer. “We are waiting for them to achieve commercial production levels and wish them well,” he said in an email.

On Maui, astaxanthin gel capsules can be found under various brands, like Cyanotech’s BioAstin®, at most health food stores including Down to Earth, Mana Foods, Hawaiian Moons, and even larger retailers like Whole Foods and Walmart.

“We feel good we’re growing products that are going to be improving people’s health, and doing it using resources on Maui,” said Kathleen Murphy, business manager for MTAF.

-courtesy The Maui News

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