KAUST Biotechnology Targets Saudi Food Security

 Seagriculture EU 2024
KAUST Biotechnology

The new Center contains specialized facilities and equipment for research activities, including the only applied algal biotechnology lab on the Arabian Peninsula.

Scientists at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) have devised new techniques that they say can produce nutritious microalgae in industrial volumes. They say this new development could interest countries looking to diversify themselves off imported feed products and promote domestic food security.

Working at KAUST’s new Saudi Center for Algal Biotechnology Development and Aquaculture (Center), the scientists have developed their own Spirulina and Chlorella strains which are uniquely adapted to seawater. The innovation dispenses with the need for freshwater and makes the production of livestock feed cultivated from algae potentially sustainable and economically viable.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia currently imports most of the raw materials it needs for livestock feed — protein, lipids, and carbohydrates — from other countries including Brazil and USA. KAUST’s research means locally produced microalgae could ultimately become a substitute for the 13 million tons of imported feed materials that it is predicted Saudi Arabia will require annually by 2030.

Vision 2030 goals

The Kingdom’s plan for algal cultivation on an industrial scale aligns with its Vision 2030 goals. These include increasing its domestic food security and decreasing its dependency on imported feed and raw food materials.

“Algae will play a key role in meeting the Kingdom’s food security goals and brings versatile benefits that we can apply to other initiatives,” said Ian Campbell, Vice President of KAUST’s National Transformation Institute. “Production on this scale positions the Kingdom to be a global leader in the field of algae biotechnology.”

The opening of the new Center marks the second phase of a project coordinated by KAUST Beacon Development and Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture (MEWA), and is overseen by MEWA’s National Fisheries Development Program (NFDP). The Phase I pilot project, which began in 2022, demonstrated that different strains of local algae could grow and thrive in variable desert conditions, and that the Kingdom’s aspirations to develop cultivation were realistic and sustainable. Phase II will now expand operations on an industrial scale, increasing the size from 1,000 square meters as an algae pilot plant to 42,000 square meters, creating industrial or commercial-sized algae facilities.

The Center contains specialized facilities and equipment for research activities, including the only applied algal biotechnology lab on the Arabian Peninsula. Initially producing up to 100 tons of algae dry biomass annually, internationally distinguished researchers and scientists will be able to visit the center and help develop new technologies, processes, and products to benefit food security programs around the world.

Phase II will also help the Kingdom develop its aquaculture industry, another key Vision 2030 goal. The Saudi’s believe aquaculture has huge potential as a source of fresh local food and has set a goal of producing 530,000 metric tons of seafood per year by 2030. The Center will promote Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture, in which fish biowastes like nitrogen and phosphorus are removed from the water to feed the algae, which is then fed back to the fish.

The project will use captured and treated carbon dioxide emissions from a nearby generator to feed the algae, offsetting the project’s carbon footprint by an estimated 150 tons of captured CO₂ per year.

“We have demonstrated that microalgae production is a feasible, sustainable and reliable technology for Saudi Arabia,” said Algae Program Director at KAUST, Dr. Claudio Grünewald. “This is not only to produce raw material as feed for animals, but also to uptake CO₂, bioremediate both fresh and brackish water and, most importantly, seawater. And then, even produce high value metabolites that can be used in industries ranging from animal feed to pharmaceuticals.”

The initiatives also help fulfill a third Vision 2030 goal which is to upskill Saudi Arabia’s workforce and diversify its economy. In addition to scaling up operations to ensure algal production will be a commercial success, the Center is providing hands-on training in algae and aquaculture farming to the next generation of Saudi specialists and professionals.

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Seagriculture USA 2024
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