Iceland May Become a Major Source of Alternative Protein

Seagriculture USA 2024
Vaxa Iceland

Vaxa’s technology uses the natural outputs of a geothermal power plant, including 100% green energy, cold and hot non-marine water, and carbon to power the production process for algae to grow.

by Dr. Catherine Richards

I​celand could help address Northern Europe’s food security issues with the scaling-up of its industrial production of spirulina — an alternative protein source that is nutritious, sustainable and risk resilient. By relocating electricity currently consumed by heavy industry, Iceland could become a major, sustainable alternative protein exporter.

Under the most ambitious of estimations, Iceland could be protein self-sufficient and capable of feeding more than six million Europeans every year, a new feasibility study suggests.

In Iceland, Spirulina is already produced successfully in a novel, industrial-scale, biomass cultivation system powered by renewable energy. Currently in operation is the Hellisheidi Production Unit, operated by Vaxa Iceland, and situated in the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant. The production process is carbon neutral.

For the purpose of the feasibility study, Dr. Asaf Tzachor and Dr. Catherine Richards, from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with researchers from Denmark and Iceland, explored Iceland’s role in supporting Northern European countries to achieve protein self-sufficiency. Data from the Hellisheidi Production Unit was used as a benchmark for the researchers’ protein self-sufficiency feasibility model. The model was used to assess scenarios of further scale-up of Iceland’s spirulina production capacity and export of the edible biomass. Their findings were reported in the journal Foods.

Using six spirulina production scale-up scenarios, the researchers assessed possible production expansion based on the use of currently installed and potentially installed renewable energy capacity.

Map of power plants in Iceland. Orange dots = geothermal power plants. Dark blue dots = hydroelectric power plants. Bright green dots = wind turbine power plants. Yellow dots = solar power plants. Purple dots = petroleum-based power plants. Pale blue dots = home power plants. White dots = backup power plants. Map data courtesy Government of Iceland.

More than 99% of total electricity in Iceland is generated from low-carbon, renewable and non-intermittent hydropower and geothermal resources.

The model consisted of two main components: protein supply (including real-world spirulina production data) and protein demand (accounting for adult daily protein intake requirements as well as the suitability of spirulina biomass to satisfy these requirements). According to the researchers, to ensure sufficient intake of all essential amino acids, men would need to consume 39.34kg of spirulina biomass (in dry weight), and women would need to consume 33.72kg of spirulina biomass, each year.

Under the first production scale-up scenario, assuming a conservative scale-up, Iceland could be protein self-sufficient with 20,925 tons of spirulina produced per year using 15% of currently installed electricity generation capacity. This is enough to meet the protein and dietary requirements of 572,867 individuals.

In the sixth scenario, billed the “ultimate scale-up”, Iceland could be self-sufficient and — in a greater allocation of energy capacity used by heavy industry – the country could additionally meet the needs of Lithuania and Latvia, or Lithuania and Estonia, plus Jersey, Isle of Man, Guernsey, and the Faroe Islands. Under this most ambitious scenario using planned energy projects, Iceland could support itself plus Denmark (population of 6,104,474 in 2030), or Finland, or Norway, or Ireland with up to 242,366 tons of Spirulina biomass per year, satisfying 6,635,052 people.

“Europe’s reliance on third parties for the importation of protein-rich crop imports to meet domestic food demand, exposes such countries to protein supply change disruptions,” said Dr. Tzachor. “This renders European food security vulnerable, a situation which is only further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change on our global agricultural systems. This is why sustainable protein self-reliance is such a hot topic, with spirulina identified as one such ‘future food’ recognized as a superb provider of complete protein with nutritional benefits including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.”

By relocating electricity currently consumed by heavy industry, Iceland could become a major, sustainable alternative protein exporter.

Although not the main focus of their feasibility study, the researchers also note the ancillary environmental benefits of spirulina production, namely GHG emissions reduction. It is anticipated that if global GHG emissions reduction took precedence over Northern Europe’s protein self-sufficiency, and instead spirulina biomass was adopted in Western diets as a beef meat protein alternative (in the form of pills or pressed powder), the average consumer may maintain a balanced diet while decreasing GHG emissions associated with beef cattle agriculture and meat processing.

“On a protein-per-protein basis, for each kilogram of spirulina (dry weight) consumed instead of meat from beef cattle, 315kg CO₂ equivalent (CO₂-eq) could be reduced,” said Dr. Richards, who completed her PhD at the Department of Engineering. “As a climate change mitigation option, and under the most ambitious scenario, this intervention alone may yield annual savings of 75.1 million tonnes CO₂-eq or 7.3% of quarterly European greenhouse gas emissions.”
While the scaling-up scenarios considered in the feasibility study assume idealized production conditions, the researchers acknowledge that the success of these are dependent on the allocation of adequate electricity. Additionally, there are financial considerations to factor in with regards to the ramping-up of Iceland’s spirulina production, as well as wider awareness-raising work needed to communicate to the public the benefits of spirulina consumption.

“Ultimately, there is a real opportunity here for Iceland to advance its biotechnology industry,” said Dr. Richards. “By relocating electricity currently consumed by heavy industry, Iceland could transition to a position as a major and sustainable alternative protein exporter.”

 Asaf Tzachor, Catherine E. Richards, at al. ‘The potential role of Iceland in Northern Europe’s protein self-sufficiency: feasibility study of large-scale production of Spirulina in a novel energy-food system‘. Foods (2022). DOI: 10.3390/foods12010038

In the news…World’s Largest Microalgae Production Plant Set to Open in Malaysia

Sam Chua reports for the Borneo Post that the world’s largest mass microalgae biomass production facility known as Chitose Carbon Capture Central (C4), utilizing flat-panel photo-bioreactor technology, is set for its official opening in April of this year in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo.

According to Chitose Laboratory Corp executive officer and chief bioengineer Dr. Takanori Hoshino, the project is funded by the Japanese government and involves collaboration with Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC), Sarawak Energy Bhd (SEB) and ENEOS Corporation.

“This project is being funded by the Japanese government for five years until the end of fiscal year 2024 and after that, we will use the C4 for commercial production of various products from the microalgae biomass,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Borneo Post.

Dr. Hoshino said the project is funded by the Japanese government to the tune of approximately 2.5 billion yen (more than $18.4 million USD) to demonstrate the mass production of microalgae biomass throughout the year.


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Seagriculture USA 2024
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