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Algae: Important for Food

Gross-Wen Technologies is a start-up company located in Ames, Iowa, in the heart of the U.S. Corn Belt. The new algae-production company is one of a number of enterprises using algae to revolutionize the way food, feed, and other bio-products are grown and processed in the world.

What makes Gross-Wen Technologies stand out is its patented algae-production technology known as the revolving algal biofilm (RAB) system. RAB can remove nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater, preventing the nutrients from contaminating downstream water supplies by feeding them to algae, which can then be processed into fertilizer or bioplastics.

From clean water, the algae produced by RAB can be used as feedstocks for high-value products such as high-protein foods and supplements, livestock and aquaculture feedstuffs, and nutritional and pharmaceutical products.

Zhiyou Wen, cofounder of Gross-Wen Technologies (gross-wen.com), says the company’s wastewater cleaning technology is being tested in Cresco, Iowa, and Chicago. A food company he declined to name also is researching the use of the clean-water-derived algae as a high-protein supplement for flour.

In addition to producing food, feed, and fertilizer, algae production adds benefits by recycling carbon from the atmosphere, removing contaminants from wastewater, and bringing unproductive acres into production, according to Matt Carr, executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization (algaebiomass.org).

On the Farm

Carr says algae-production systems can be a fairly low-cost way for farmers to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, keeping the nutrients on the farm, which eliminates the need to purchase more fertilizer. Research is being conducted at Utah State University on using algae to reduce and remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater produced by dairy operations.

Algae produced on the farm also can be processed into livestock feed, Carr notes. For example, farmers who are raising shrimp or catfish can use algae that are rich in protein and oil to replace fish meal in aquaculture diets. An advantage of algae production on the farm, he observes, is that per-acre algae yields are much higher than row crops, and the return on a per-acre basis is considerably higher. “Algae can expand the nation’s agricultural base and bring more revenue in for farmers, especially in marginal areas,” Carr says. 

Farmers can raise algae on land that is unsuited for row crops, he adds, because algae don’t need good soil.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has supported algae systems to produce alternative transportation fuels, Carr says. The DOE is maintaining its support of algae systems, but the commercial side of the industry is shifting from transportation fuels to more agriculture-related products. 

“Food has become a leading segment of the algae-production industry,” Carr says. “It is difficult to get a handle on the numbers, but today, a vast majority of commercial algae production is now going to human and animal nutrition.”

Using algae for aquaculture feed is a big driver in that category, Carr says. “The most challenging ingredient in fish feed is the fish oil that boosts the omega-3 content in the feed. Algae are rich in omega-3s as a sustainable source that can supplement fish oil,” he notes.

Carr says the DOE’s 2016 Billion-Ton Report shows that the U.S. can produce large quantities of algal biomass for processing into food ingredients, fuels, feed and other products. The DOE’s report shows the following.

• There are approximately 140,000 square miles of land in the U.S. that are suitable for open-pond algae farms.

• There is enough carbon dioxide (CO2) in the U.S. that could be used to produce almost 1.4 billion tons of algae a year.

• An analysis of a single strain of saltwater algae finds that it potentially could produce 86 million tons of algal biomass annually and capture 211 million tons of CO2 from coal, ethanol, and natural gas sources.

The Algae Biomass Organization also is working with the USDA to promote algae research and to find uses for algae as an agricultural crop. “We want to give the USDA a clear direction for its support of algae research for agriculture,” Carr says, “because algae are fast becoming a significant component in food and health products. It is time that this new crop was afforded the support by the USDA that other crops have been provided for decades.”

To help guide the USDA’s efforts, the Algae Agriculture Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year with bipartisan support, Carr says. The legislation has been folded into the farm bill legislation. 

Provisions of the Algae Agriculture Act could dramatically accelerate algae farming in the U.S., Carr says, bringing economic benefits to rural areas and sustainable solutions to the world. Those include an algae research initiative, an algae crop insurance program, and the elimination of the exclusion of algae from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.

There also are efforts in Congress to support the use of algae for carbon capture and use.

Algae Companies

Companies working on commercializing algae include global agricultural giants such as ADM and Bunge. 

One large project under way is the $200-million algae-production plant being built in Blair, Nebraska, by a joint venture between DSM Nutritional Products and Evonik Nutrition & Care. The plant, which is projected to begin operations in mid-2019, is being built to produce omega-3 fatty acids from natural marine algae for animal nutrition. 

Carr says the Veramaris algae-production system fits into the first of three fairly distinct types of algae production, which consist of larger facilities that resemble industrial plants.

At the other end of the spectrum are open-pond algae-production facilities that make up the second type of algae production. An example, Carr says, is Qualitis Health, which has headquarters in Houston, Texas, and is producing algae in open-air ponds. This approach requires less capital, he notes, but is a more challenging way to grow algae because the outdoor ponds can attract competing organisms that can restrict production, and adverse weather conditions can harm the algae. 

The third type, which is where Gross-Wen Technologies fits in, uses photobioreactor systems to produce algae in an enclosed area. The photo-bioreactor system is the one that is most translatable to the farm, Carr says.

Wen and cofounder Martin Gross, who was Wen’s graduate student at Iowa State University, developed their algae-production system at Iowa State’s BioCentury Research Farm, where Gross and Wen coinvented the revolving bioreactor that allows algae to attach to a surface. The surface is rotated in and out of a culture medium to increase the algal growth rate.

Fertilizer that is produced from the algae grown in wastewater is being tested at Iowa State.

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