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Farming Microalgae | Ask The Expert

Have you ever tried a green-blue smoothie? Eaten green bread or blue gummy bears? Then you're probably up to date on the superfood of the future: microalgae, whose sustainable production on an industrial scale is being worked on by research companies and algae farmers worldwide. Jörg Ullmann gives us a producer's take on the potential of algae.

Almost 20 years ago, an algae farm in the small town of Klötze in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, began cultivating microalgae, mainly the green algae Chlorella. Today, its managing director, Jörg Ullmann, is considered one of the world’s experts on algae biomass and microalgae cultivation on an industrial scale. His freshwater green algae, mainly processed into food supplements, grows in a 500km long closed-glass tube system, and he is now working with partners to set up more farms. In addition to Chlorella vulgaris, the graduate biologist, amateur diver, and algae cookbook author also cultivates several other algae species, with Ullmann telling FoodUnfolded, “We are only at the beginning with this treasure chest". 

In this interview, Ullmann shares his insights with us on the common goals of algae producers looking to scale up the production of blue-green algae.

Do we know of and use most algae species today?

No, we have a huge treasure chest in front of us. Worldwide, about 47,000 species are known, but there could be ten times more which have not yet been discovered. Currently, about 100 algae species are used for research, both in the food industry and as animal feed. The green alga Chlorella vulgaris, a photosynthesising (aquatic) plant, and the blue-green alga spirulina, which is not a plant but, strictly speaking, a cyano-bacterium, are the best-researched microalgae to date. But we can also learn much more about these two as soon as the corresponding innovative processes and technologies are available.

There’s a lot of hype around algae, especially microalgae - what is the reason for this?

There are several reasons, but the most important one is the enormous potential of algae. Especially in view of a growing world population that needs to be supplied with proteins with limited agricultural land. This is where algae come in handy because you will hardly find any other food with such a density of nutrients. That is why they are sometimes called superfoods.

What nutrients do only microalgae have in such a concentration?

Chlorella biomass has around 50 % protein, and spirulina has more than 60 % - more than a cutlet or an egg. Chlorella is also the most chlorophyll-rich plant in the world, so you won't find anything with more chlorophyll [any time soon]. In addition, spirulina and chlorella are two foods that have a very high vitamin B12 content. Normally, you only find this in animal foods, not at all in plant foods. We are researching several algae types that produce a B12 bioavailable to the human body. In the next step, we want to try to synthesise it, and at some point, of course, we want to produce it in larger quantities. Food can be specifically enriched with iodine or vitamin B12 via algae, both micronutrients that are in short supply in many populations, including this country [Germany].

Learn more about Vitamin B12 and how to find it in a plant-based diet.

With high nutrient densities, could these two microalgae help with malnutrition?

Absolutely. That's why we have been supporting a Colombian NGO, Fundacion Atlantida, since 2016. It aims to counteract malnutrition and undernourishment in children with the help of spirulina. We started with 12 children who received a daily dose of the microalgae, and after 4-6 weeks, for example, weight gains of up to 30% were observed in small children. A study on the effects of spirulina supplementation will be published soon. In the face of global malnutrition, and not only in disaster situations, algae offer a huge potential. 

Open farming systems like ponds are easy to settle with limited investments costs and low maintenance, but they can be used to cultivate only the most robust microalgae like Spirulina.
Open farming systems like ponds are easy to settle with limited investments costs and low maintenance, but they can be used to cultivate only the most robust microalgae like Spirulina.

Aside from nutrients, are there any other reasons for the current hype around microalgae?

Well, one important advantage of microalgae is that they grow about 10-30 times faster than land plants. And we can grow them without adding pesticides and antibiotics, which are commonly used in livestock breeding. Of course, technical progress also plays a big role: there is the open-pond technology, i.e. open basins, but you can also grow microalgae in photobioreactors as we did at our first plant in Klötze. Microalgae, cultivated in a closed glass tube system with the purest raw materials that are constantly checked for their quality, like in our case, also show no traces of heavy metals and other harmful substances.

Discover how to grow your own Spirulina at home 

There are fermenters, too, that don't even need any light at all. In steel tanks, for example, you can add an algae starter culture to an organic basic material source, add dextrose, for example, and then the microalgae grow similarly to yeast - photosynthesis is virtually skipped. This has the advantage that you can produce 24/7.

Theoretically, it would also be possible to grow algae in the desert - or in space, as on the ISS in 2019: there, the microalgae chlorella grew in a photobioreactor and supplied the astronauts with fresh air.

Can microalgae be cultivated sustainably?

The technologies for producing microalgae are still relatively new and, therefore, still quite expensive. But they already score points in terms of sustainability. If you look at the amount of land required or the consumption of freshwater per kilogram of protein produced, you are already better off than with the production of peas, soy or other arable crops. The whole thing becomes even more exciting when scalable technologies and biorefinery concepts are developed and when we think about closing material cycles within the framework of a bioeconomy. We and many others are working on this.

In the water-filled tubes of the photobioreactors, microalgae grow under optimum conditions, while fresh water use can be considerably reduced.
In the water-filled tubes of the photobioreactors, microalgae grow under optimum conditions, while fresh water use can be considerably reduced.

Why are algae interesting for the food industry, apart from as food supplements?

On the one hand, there are algae in food as so-called "functional ingredients": these are extracts mainly from red and brown algae: Agar-agar, carrageenan or alginates, which are sometimes simply called E 4074, and are already used almost everywhere as emulsifiers, thickeners, gelling or coating agents. It is estimated that over 70% of all industrially processed foods already contain such extracts: like in dressings, mayonnaises, or puddings. In confectionery in blue or green colours, more than half of the products contain spirulina and chlorella extracts. Microalgae are replacing synthetic colouring agents as more natural food additives are being used today.

And what about using them in the kitchen - can any algae fan prepare them?

Yes! The current trend towards vegetarian and vegan food naturally reinforces the current development. There is now specially fermented chlorella that can replace butter and egg in baked goods, which could be a game changer for vegan nutrition.

You can also get many dried algae in online shops or organic and natural food shops, and you can prepare them as a tasty vegetable or salad. Then there is the sushi algae nori, for example, which is very versatile in taste. Algae have been discovered by high-end cuisine for some time now, for example, in the northern coastal and Atlantic regions of Europe. In addition, many products are already on the market today: green algae smoothies and algae lemonade - these are foods from German start-ups that we support with our microalgae and know-how.

Last question: what's your favourite type of algae?

Phew - well, I can't really answer that question as I like many algae. The vegetable algae dulse, a red algae, [for example]. You get a hearty, almost bacon-like taste if you lightly fry it. It also tastes delicious when you mix it into a potato puree. Nori algae is also very versatile in taste, not only for sushi but also when dressed with vinegar and oil. Or the brown alga Himanthalia from the North Atlantic, North Sea or Baltic Sea, also called sea spaghetti because of its shape. It doesn't taste sweet like the ones from Asian countries, but a little more tangy. So you can experiment with algae in the kitchen!

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