Scalable Algae Microfarms: Part 1

Why algae microfarms are emerging today

September 9, by Robert Henrikson

Author’s note: Parallel to very large algae production systems envisioned by well-funded algae ventures, is the emerging interest in smaller, scalable algae farms and business models. Evolving from projects in developing world villages, algaepreneurs in France have been growing spirulina algae in small outdoor greenhouses. Along with outdoor pond systems, much algae R&D is focusing on bioreactors designed to grow more challenging algae under more controlled conditions. Automated smart technology combined with modular growing systems may soon make it feasible to successfully deploy algae microfarms and photobioreactors anywhere in the world.

This is the beginning of a six part series:

  1. Why algae microfarms are emerging today;
  2. Appropriate technology in the developing world;
  3. Algaepreneurs and the microfarm movement in France;
  4. Home and community Do-It-Yourself growing;
  5. Microfarms and bioreactors in modular systems;
  6. Future visions of living algae systems in daily life.

Evolution of the algae industry

Over the past 40 years, worldwide algae companies have produced high value food and feed products, supplements and nutraceuticals. More recently, well-funded ventures are attempting to develop commercial biofuels. These will require huge investments to achieve necessary economies of scale. Large-scale business models require algae experts and PhDs on location, with expensive staffing and sophisticated infrastructure.

More interest in smaller, scalable business models is emerging. Evolving from projects in developing world villages, algaepreneurs in France have been growing spirulina algae in small outdoor greenhouses. Along with outdoor pond systems, much algae R&D is focusing on bioreactors designed to grow more challenging algae under more controlled conditions. Automated smart technology combined with modular growing systems may soon make it feasible to successfully deploy algae microfarms and photobioreactors anywhere in the world without onsite expert personnel.

Algae represent a productivity breakthrough

An algae production system can be an environmentally sound green food machine. Biomass can double every 2 to 5 days. With high protein algae like spirulina, this productivity breakthrough can yield over 20 times more protein than soybeans on the same area, 40 times corn and 400 times beef. Other microalgae have even higher productivity.

The last 30 years progress in algae technology is remarkable. Successful algae cultivation requires a more ecological approach than industrial agriculture. As a living culture, if one factor changes in an algae system, the entire environment changes very quickly. Because algae grow so fast, the result can be seen in hours or days, not seasons or years like in conventional agriculture. Algae scientists balance system ecology to keep out weed algae and zooplankton algae eaters without using pesticides or herbicides. Algae cultivation is a new addition to ecological food production.

Some envision huge centralized algae farms producing food and energy on a vast scale. But others see networks of smaller farms.

Ecological communities can combine algae and aquaponics with organic gardens. Local food production avoids costs of transportation fuels and multi-level distribution along the value chain in the current food system. A higher portion of the value of locally grown food is returned to the grower, encouraging local food producers, creating greater income equality and local self-sufficiency for a more just and stable social fabric.

Algae microfarms for family and community cultivation are coming

Many people have asked “How can I grow algae?” Gardeners, farmers and algaepreneurs want to grow algae without deep scientific expertise, experience and knowledge. In fact, small-scale algae farming has been tested for 30 years all over the world. Innovative, inexpensive and efficient small systems have been operating in villages in the developing world. In France there are over 100 algae microfarmers, and a school curriculum for growing algae. These small growers are selling their own products directly in their local region.

Soon, remote sensors linked with cell phone apps may assist the basic functions of algae culture health monitoring and diagnosis. This will allow local algae growers to consult with remotely located algae experts on how to maintain a healthy algae culture in their small production systems.

Growing food in cities and urban areas may become critical as fuel costs rise, making transported food increasingly expensive. On a small land area, a community could meet a portion of its food requirements from microalgae, freeing cropland for community recreation or reforestation.

Thousands of algae species cover the earth

There may be more than 300,000 species of algae, living everywhere. They range in size from a single cell to giant kelp over 150 feet long. Most algae live off sunlight through photosynthesis, but some live off organic matter like bacteria. A few are being commercially developed for food, feed or fuel.

Microscopic portraits of eight commercial microalgae.

Microscopic portraits of eight commercial microalgae.

Spirulina has been the most widely cultivated algae since the 1970s. Thousands of tons have been sold each year for the past 40 years as a food and feed supplement. There are large farms in the USA, China, India, Mexico, Myanmar and other countries, and many small village scale and microfarms in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Chlorella was the first microalgae to be commercially cultivated beginning in the 1970s and sold as a food supplement. Outdoor farms in Taiwan, Southern Japan and Indonesia produce much of the world supply. Chlorella is also grown commercially in closed indoor production systems.

Dunaliella thrives in water even saltier than the ocean in places like Australia and Israel. Too salty to be eaten as a whole food, its beta carotene is extracted as an oil or powder and sold as a food supplement, antioxidant and color for aquaculture feeds.

Haematococcus is grown in both outdoor ponds and closed systems for astaxanthin, a carotenoid pigment, extracted as a fish feed supplement to color salmon flesh and as a human anti-oxidant food supplement.

Schizochytrium is a marine microalgae grown in vats by fermentation, developed as a source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), used as a supplement in a wide variety of infant formulas, food and beverages and animal feed products.

Aphanizomenon flos-aquae is a nitrogen-fixing blue-green algae. Harvested from Klamath Lake in Oregon, it is sold as a food supplement.

Botryococcus braunii is being commercialized for algae biofuel.

Nannochloropsis is being commercialized for biofuel and nutritional omega-3 oil.

Going big – Large-scale algae cultivation brings big risks.

Big algae production systems start small. Ideas migrate to laboratory research and then to small demonstration systems. After success growing in small systems, companies scale up to larger production to achieve economies of scale.

Small modules and ponds in 1978 launched Earthrise Nutritionals farm in Imperial Valley CA.

Small modules and ponds in 1978 launched Earthrise Nutritionals farm in Imperial Valley CA.

If commercial algae production works, and the product finds a market, at some point, revenues will exceed break-even and variable costs, and over time, repay the original investment. For large ventures, with high investment and operating costs, the question is- what size will it really take to make a profit?

Algae production farms for high value food and feed supplements, operating since the 1980s, such as Earthrise Nutritionals in California and Cyanotech in Hawaii, ranged up to 50 hectares in area. Today, algae biofuel ventures are looking to scale up from 100 to 1000 hectares and even larger to achieve the economies of scale to be worthwhile. Here are artist conceptions of outdoor algae biofuel farms of the future.

Artist conceptions of large algae biofuel farms

Artist conceptions of large algae biofuel farms

One of the first large scale algae biofuel farms is now underway. Sapphire Energy has announced the first phase of their commercial demonstration algae-to-energy facility is operational in Columbus, New Mexico. Today, the cultivation area consists of 1.1 and 2.2 acre ponds. At completion, Sapphire projects the 300 acres (120 hectares) of algae cultivation ponds and processing facilities will produce 1.5 million gallons per year of crude oil.

Sapphire Energy Green Crude Farm

Sapphire Energy Green Crude Farm

The Sapphire Energy Green Crude Farm, also known as an Integrated Algal Bio-Refinery, was funded with both private and public funds, including $85 million in private investment from Sapphire Energy, backed by a USDA loan guarantee and a $50 million grant from the US DOE.

Building at this scale is a substantial investment risk. Beyond the uncertainties of developing novel algae systems, the high monthly costs for laboratory, technical and operations staff represent a big nut to cover. Some large algae ventures have succeeded, but many more have failed over the past 40 years.

Staying small – the first microfarms are growing spirulina algae

Parallel to large scale commercial farms has been the evolution of village scale algae systems, primarily in the developing world in Africa and Asia.

Spirulina has been most commonly adopted and there are now farms all over the world, perhaps in as many as 40 countries.

Why spirulina? It has these six advantages:

  1. Traditionally consumed and proven safe
  2. Easy to grow
  3. Easy to harvest
  4. Significant scientific research on health and medical benefits
  5. Existing global market developed by large commercial farms
  6. Low cost of entry for small-scale production

However, with greater understanding of how to control and cultivate other high value algae and the use of automated systems, it is likely that other types of algae will also become candidates for small-scale cultivation in the near future.

New book from the International Algae Competition: “Imagine Our Algae Future”.

New book from the International Algae Competition: “Imagine Our Algae Future”.

The International Algae Competition challenged people around the world to design our future with algae food and energy systems.  Let’s look into our future and see how algae microfarms may move into landscapes and eco communities producing local food and energy.

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