Happy New Year everyone!
Moving into the new year, we take a fond look back at a year of changes in algae’s beneficial contributions to a world dealing with challenges and unlocking discoveries. 2023 was a busy year for both micro- and macroalgae research, entrepreneurial ventures, and addressing environmental concerns. Here are AlgaePlanet’s Top Ten Algae Stories of the Year.
1. Seaweed farming is looming large in our future
2023 was a year that saw a marked increase in planning for a seaweed-driven future on many fronts. A University of Queensland-led study showed that expanding global seaweed farming could go a long way to addressing the planet’s food security, biodiversity loss, and climate change challenges.
The Social License for Seaweed Farming project, headed by the Scottish Association for Marine Science, in Oban, and funded by World Wildlife Foundation, stressed the need for a social license in developing the UK’s long-term seaweed industry. A policy brief issued by the G20 proposed promoting seaweed cultivation as a potential solution to address many socioeconomic and environmental challenges facing the world today. And Secretary-General António Guterres congratulated UN member countries for finalizing a text to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, calling it a “breakthrough” after nearly two decades of talks.
Along with the aggressive growth forecasts, caution was urged. A group of world-leading seaweed scientists warned that global wild seaweed stocks are at risk of disappearing unless urgent international protection measures are implemented. In Australia safety concerns were raised about the native seaweed asparagopsis, which is being commercialized to help farmers reduce methane emissions in sheep and cattle. Scientists were also concerned endangered right whales will be threatened by rope lines as kelp cultivation increases in the North Atlantic. New techniques are being developed to avoid that outcome.
2. And seaweed continues to form itself into an industry. No, make that many industries…
Many companies joined forces to carve out their place in the emerging seaweed industry. Simply Blue Group and Arctic Seaweed signed a Memorandum of Understanding to explore solutions for co-locating seaweed farms among offshore wind farms in Northern Europe.
Nissui Corporation, a multi-billion-dollar marine products company headquartered in Tokyo, invested in the seaweed business Seascape Restorations Australia Pty. Ltd. (renamed “Immersion Group”) of Victoria, Australia. INTEF, one of Europe’s largest independent research organizations, announced plans to install a seaweed cultivation test facility in Norway, where seaweeds cultivated there would be converted into biocoal and used to improve agricultural land.
Cyanotech Corporation and Symbrosia announced they were partnering to grow Symbrosia’s strain of seaweed for their SeaGraze animal feed product at Cyanotech’s facilities in Hawaii. Provectus Algae of Noosa, Australia, announced its entry into livestock methane reduction with its first 30,000L demonstration plant commissioned to scale up Asparagopsis feed additives. And Ocean’s Balance, a Biddeford, Maine seaweed farm and producer, spent around $650,000 on a 50-foot-long, 17-ton, kelp dryer in hopes of tripling production and making an impact on the world market.
3. Improved methods for microalgae production flourished
Macroalgae wasn’t the only story, though. Much research went into improving methods of microalgae production. Europe’s REALM Project launched, aiming to reuse drain water from greenhouses and hydroponics to produce microalgae that will clean and treat the water, then produce sustainable bio-stimulants and bio-fertilizers for agriculture. Similarly, the AlgaCycle project, led by the Portuguese company Necton S.A., was envisioned to develop sustainable products for aquaculture and agriculture, from a resource considered as waste — drainage water.
MIT researchers developed a simple and inexpensive technology that could substantially limit fouling in photobioreactor tubes, by coating the transparent containers with a material that can hold an electrostatic charge, and then applying a very small voltage to that layer. In a lab study of another new photobioreactor tube design, startup Photosynthetic Technologies demonstrated that a grooved prototype produced 41% greater cumulative biomass production after 10 days of growth, when compared to a standard, cylindrical tube.
A research group from Hefei Institute of Physical Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences proved that red light can promote photoautotrophic growth of Haematococcus pluvialis and studied the related carbon fixation mechanism. Two Louisiana State University faculty members were awarded a U.S. patent for a miniature self-powered light that has been shown to boost the production of algae.
Researchers found that the cell density of Euglena cells reached a maximum when cultured in tomato juice, increasing to 107 cells/mL, the same level as with KH medium. Other researchers unraveled the distribution pattern and dynamic changes in DNA N6-methyladenine (6mA) at a single-base resolution in wild-type and 6mA-disrupted mutant strains, thus revealing its critical role in lipid accumulation, especially under high light conditions.
4. Macroalgae shows it has more tricks up its blades
The U.S. Department of Energy announced up to $5M in funding to evaluate the feasibility of rare earth and mineral extraction as well as other high-value trace critical minerals from macroalgae. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory received $1.35 million to evaluate the feasibility of extracting rare earth elements from macroalgae for use in energy applications. A University of Alaska, Fairbanks-led research team was awarded a $1.9 million federal grant to explore whether Southeast Alaskan seaweeds near a rich deposit are absorbing rare-earth elements.
The 5000-mile-wide pile of sargassum headed for Florida last Spring, while potentially devastating for tourism, may have had some practical benefits as researchers and entrepreneurs experimented with turning it into syrup, bricks, and even jet fuel. Carbonwave, a Boston-and-Puerto Rico-based startup began using it in fertilizer, cosmetics, and faux leather. A company in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Sargablock, announced they were harvesting sargassum that washed up on beaches and turning it into sturdy, durable bricks used for construction projects.
A Cornell researcher and her colleagues successfully transferred key regions of a highly efficient red algae into a tobacco plant, using bacteria as an intermediary — called a step toward dramatically improving plant productivity and increasing carbon sequestration.
5. More novel foods made from microalgae are creeping onto menus and dining room tables
A new series of industry research reports from Spirulina Source documented the growth of spirulina producers and products internationally, sighting that more than 550 small micro-producers sell their dried, fresh, and frozen spirulina in supplements, foods, and beverages in local and regional markets.
Sophie’s BioNutrients collaborated with the Danish Technological Institute to produce its first chlorella-based ice cream. The strains are US and European Food Safety Authority approved as food ingredients. Mewery announced they had developed cultivated pork meat products. They start by taking a sample of cells without harming the animal. Then they feed the cells with proteins, vitamins, and growth factors using their proprietary microalgae serum-free medium.
UL Foods, an Amsterdam-based, food-tech startup created what they claim to be a new category of environmentally efficient, functional nutrition with their first product to the U.S. market, FULwater. Triton Algae Innovations introduced a new product: an Asian-style dumpling with a cabbage, onion & alternative pork filling, being marketed under the brand name “Too Good to Be.”
Israeli-based spirulina food-tech innovator, SimpliiGood by AlgaeCore Technologies Ltd., unveiled a breaded chicken cutlet analog composed of 80% pure, fresh, minimally processed spirulina. And at year’s end, Koralo, a new contender arrived from Germany, creating “New F!sh” from co-fermented mycelium and microalgae, made in South Korea. Yum!
6. Algae as hero in the battle against carbon
Several more projects were launched in 2023 leveraging algae’s hunger for carbon against humanity’s antipathy for it. Researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology were awarded a three-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to better understand how microalgae can be used to reduce power plant CO₂ emissions.
Iceland-based ocean health company, Running Tide, announced an agreement with Microsoft that makes it the technology company’s first open ocean-based carbon removal supplier, intending to remove the equivalent of 12,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the next two years. Algiecel and its project partners received funding of DKK 18m (£2.4m) from Denmark’s Energy Technology Development and Demonstration Programme for a power- and microalgae-based decarbonization project. And coming from scientists from the University of Belgrade in Serbia, Liquid Trees are being promoted as a possible solution contributor to air pollution issues in big cities, sparking an online debate.
7. Brown algae takes a bow, or two
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology reported that brown algae can remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the global cycle in the long term and thus can help counteract global warming. Scientists also discovered rich anti-aging properties in South Australian brown seaweed that significantly increases collagen levels in the skin and protects against the deterioration of both collagen and elastin.
A golden-brown algae-derived wax from a commonly grown marine microalga could be “the next big thing in cosmetics,” thanks to a license agreement among the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Western Washington University, and Upwell Cosmetics.
8. Other novel applications of microalgae emerge
A team led by researchers at the University of Washington developed new bioplastics, made entirely from powdered blue-green cyanobacteria cells, that degrade on the same timescale as a banana peel in a backyard compost bin. In a collaborative study between King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and the Arizona Center for Algae Technology & Innovation, scientists are genetically modifying algae to produce orange-red pigments that make seafood healthier and are widely applicable in textiles and medicine.
Researchers at Flinders University took a major step forward in the field of wound care by using plasma technology to “transform” spirulina into ultrathin bioactive coatings. Algenesis announced a partnership with Trelleborg to develop high-performance bio-based and biodegradable Thermoplastic Polyurethane polymers from raw materials extracted from algae and non-food plants to meet the needs for sustainable fabric coatings.
9. Algae biofuel isn’t dead yet…well, technically it is
RUDN University ecologists in Moscow, Russia, compared the main methods for obtaining biofuel from microalgae and named the most effective one, taking into account the process of preparing raw materials, the yield of the final product, and the energy costs of synthesis. The U.S. Department of Energy announced $25.5 million in funding to enable the sustainable use of domestic biomass and waste resources, such as agricultural residues and algae, to produce low-carbon biofuels and bioproducts.
In the wake of losing a long-term algae research partnership with ExxonMobil, Viridos, Inc. raised a $25M equity investment led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures and joined by Chevron U.S.A. Inc. and United Airlines Ventures. Neste, the world’s leading producer of sustainable aviation fuel, renewable diesel, and renewable feedstock solutions for various polymers and chemicals industry uses, announced plans to establish an algae pilot production facility in Spain to develop and demonstrate algae cultivation and processing.
10. And a validation for Europeans who feel a little late to the seaweed party…
Researchers said they found “definitive” archaeological evidence that seaweeds and other local freshwater plants were eaten by Early Europeans in the Mesolithic, through the Neolithic transition to farming and into the Early Middle Ages, suggesting that these resources, now rarely eaten in Europe, only became marginal much more recently.
So, let’s drink a New Year’s toast to a healthy and productive 2024, filled with valuable discoveries, successful new and old ventures, and fueled by the extraordinary brain power of this dynamic industry working to make the world a better place.
Thanks for reading!
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