Sustainability/Analysis/

The startups harnessing the power of algae

Is algae the key to combatting the climate crisis?

By Isabelle Gerretsen

Brilliant Planet

Companies around the world are betting big on algae to combat the climate crisis — and make a whole lot of money. The algae market is expected to be worth $8.3bn by 2028, and there are now dozens of European startups — and investors — hoping to take a slice of that pie. 

Algae grows really quickly, without much help. Microalgae grows 10 times faster than plants on land and can absorb 10-50 times more CO2.

“Algae cells can produce surprisingly high amounts of valuable proteins and lipids in a manner that efficiently uses much less land and water than almost any others,” says Nate Crosser, an investor at VC firm Blue Horizon. 

Companies, including big corporates like ExxonMobil, Unilever and Whole Foods, are using algae to produce biofuels, fertilisers and vegan food alternatives as well as to capture carbon emissions from the atmosphere. 

Algae is super exciting as there are so many different applications for it,” says Heidi Lindvall, general partner at climate-focused VC firm Pale Blue Dot.

We take a look at three European startups using algae to capture CO2, produce biofuels and create food to paint a picture of how impactful these organisms could be on our future.

Capturing CO2

Founded by molecular biochemist Raffael Jovine in 2013, London-based Brilliant Planet is using algae to pull carbon out of the air and bury it in the ground.

Since 2017, it’s been growing algae in large ponds in the Sahara desert in Morocco. 

“There’s a lot of empty desert land that has no economic, cultural or agricultural purpose and there is a lot of deep ocean water that we’re not using,” says Jovine, who is the company’s CEO and chief scientist. 

Brilliant Planet harnesses the power of sunlight and seawater to grow microalgae. Its three-hectare test site can produce 20 tonnes of dry biomass per year — a weight equal to three African elephants. The company pumps seawater from the coast into a series of ponds, where the microalgae uses photosynthesis to absorb CO2 and grow large amounts of biomass.

Brilliant Planet's test pond. The new facility will be 10 times as big
Brilliant Planet’s test pond. The new facility will be 10 times as big

Once mature — which can take up to 30 days — the algae is harvested and dried. The dried algae is then buried in a desert grave, with the carbon locked up in its tissues. The seawater becomes less acidic in the process and is returned to the ocean — helping tackle another problem caused by climate change and benefitting marine species including clams and mussels. 

Brilliant Planet’s system can capture CO2 at a much lower cost than direct air capture plants. “Direct air capture will come down a cost curve, but it is an inherently energy-intensive process and is about five-seven times as expensive,” says Jovine. 

“Existing technology is not scaleable because of the price,” he adds. “We have free sunlight and seawater.” According to Jovine, microalgae can sequester 30 times more net carbon than trees and other land plants. 

Brilliant Planet raised $13m this year from investors including Union Square Ventures, Toyota Ventures and Future Positive Capital. It plans to use the funding to develop its first demonstrator plant, spanning 30 hectares, in the next few years, which will remove 1,500-3,000 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere per year. 

The challenges ahead

Brilliant Planet hopes to sell the captured carbon on the carbon credits markets to companies looking to offset their emissions. 

“There is a huge appetite out there for high-quality carbon credits that are highly verifiable,” says Jovine. “We’re aiming for less than $100 per tonne of CO2.”

But while the amount of carbon captured is “very quantifiable” ,Jovine says the hard part is “persuading people that it is stable long-term”. Brilliant Planet is experimenting with storage solutions to check that carbon can be locked away for a long time.

“We operate a new technology, predominantly in emerging markets, and are planning to sell into a newly developing market for carbon dioxide removal. These are our biggest challenges,” says Jovine. “We feel confident about demonstrating and certifying the technology, and its permanence and measurability.” 

Adam Taylor and Raffael Jovine, Brilliant Planet cofounders
Adam Taylor and Raffael Jovine, Brilliant Planet cofounders

“The biggest area of uncertainty for us and other carbon dioxide removal companies is the evolution of the carbon markets,” he adds. 

There’s also the impact on the sea to be considered. “There are still uncertainties [around] how cultivating seaweed for carbon capture storage at an enormous scale can be done sustainably and how it will affect the biodiversity of the ocean,” says Lindvall.

Jovine adds: “There is some scientific debate around this exact point, and it relates specifically to the growth and sinking of seaweed (typically kelp) to the deep ocean. There are concerns that such a method may be difficult to monitor and verify.

“Our process is entirely different to the sinking of seaweed. For example, we operate on land and we don’t dispose of anything in the ocean — we only deacidify seawater which is a significant positive.”

Brilliant Planet is the only startup burying microalgae biomass in the desert. Other companies, such as Running Tide in the US, are focusing on the controversial method of sinking seaweed into the deep ocean to sequester carbon

Biofuels

The aviation industry, which is responsible for 2.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, urgently needs to find a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. 

But the problem is that there isn’t nearly enough biofuel to power all planes worldwide or available farmland to grow the quantities needed. 

One startup in London has found a possible solution. Phycobloom is harvesting oil from algae to produce a sustainable and commercially viable biofuel. The company has genetically engineered algae to secrete large amounts of oil, without using an expensive or energy-intensive mechanical process. The oil forms a layer on the water’s surface which can easily be removed. 

“We’re using a synthetic biology technique to make naturally occurring oil pass through the algae membrane at a much faster rate,” says John Waite, founder and CEO of Phycobloom. When it’s scaled up production, the company says 1kg of algae biomass will be able to produce an excess of 2kg of oil over the course of 30 days. 

According to Waite, algae solves biofuel’s biggest problem: how do you grow enough to power the entire industry, without competing with food production and destroying vital ecosystems in the process? 

“A biofuel industry that doesn’t involve algae won’t be sustainable or scaleable enough,” he says. 

“Around 600k sq km of farmland is used every year to grow a food crop that is then used as fuel” — an area bigger than France. (Other types of biofuel are made from waste oils and residues.) “Once we’ve scaled up, we will need just 90k sq km to displace the entirety of [kerosene used to power] the aviation industry in 2019.” 

The challenges ahead

Phycobloom’s biggest challenge is scaling up to produce enough fuel — the industry needs an estimated 330-450m tonnes per year by 2050. It’s only possible to produce the quantities needed by using a strain of microalgae that secretes oil, says Waite. 

The main thing the algae industry needs is investment and infrastructure for large-scale pond development,” says Waite. “At the moment the only ponds are relatively small test facilities, and these need to be understood at a much larger scale before algae will be able to play a pivotal role in decarbonising transport.

“There’s also the matter of the required infrastructure; algae will require CO2, water, nutrients, in order to grow and these requirements aren’t going to be off-the-shelf.

“We hope that our biofuels become so cheap that it just makes sense to do it. We want to make sure that the easiest and cheapest solution [the aviation industry] has got is also the most sustainable.

US-based Viridos, formerly Synthetic Genomics, is producing algae fuel in collaboration with ExxonMobil. US startup Manta Biofuel is also producing fuel made from algae. 

Animal protein alternatives

Algae has long been a popular food ingredient in Asia, but now it’s also making its way onto European supermarket shelves. 

French startup Algama Foods has found a way to replace a wide range of animal proteins, used in egg and seafood products, with microalgae purchased from other companies. 

Founded in 2013, Algama has developed in-house tech to extract functional proteins such as emulsifiers from microalgae. It then sells these to food companies to use in vegan mayonnaise and products imitating tuna flakes or smoked salmon strips. 

Alvyn Severien, cofounder of Algama Foods
Alvyn Severien, cofounder of Algama Foods

“Algae is an extremely rich organism; it contains a lot of proteins, vitamins and minerals and is a direct source of omega 3,” says Alvyn Severien, cofounder and CEO at Algama Foods, which has raised 11.5m in funding from investors including Horizons Ventures and Blue Horizon.

Severien says Algama’s ingredients also mimic the taste of those they replace. “When you try the products, they taste exactly the same as animal products.”

“The biggest challenge was to make [microalgae proteins] affordable and cheaper than animal proteins. It took us nine years.” 

“Algal oils are an ideal replacement for fish oils and algae can be great bulk proteins, containing all essential amino acids,” says Crosser at Blue Horizon. “Who wouldn’t want smoked salmon or bacon that [is] better for your body and the planet the more you eat?”      

Challenges ahead 

Demand for Algama’s products is higher than expected due to more people switching to plant-based diets and an egg shortage caused by supply chain issues triggered by the Ukraine war, says Severien — and so scaling up quickly is agenda item number one. 

Economical scaling up of production infrastructure is the biggest hurdle that most algae companies are facing, particularly those using microalgae,” says Crosser. “Producers are competing against many others for equipment, production sites and financing.”

Other startups in this field include Singapore-based foodtech company Sophie’s Bionutrients, which has developed the world’s first milk made from algae, and Triton Algae, which has partnered with plant-based meat brand Tofurky to launch new products later this year.  

Isabelle Gerretsen is a freelance reporter. She tweets from @izzygerretsen

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