Mining for Marine Bioproducts in Australia

Zhang marine bioproducts

Professor Wei Zhang, a biochemical engineer since 1989, is focused on what might be Australia’s new gold rush.

Founder and Director of the Flinders University Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development (CMBD), Professor Wei Zhang is focused on what might be Australia’s new gold rush. It lies in Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone — an area spanning some 10 million square kilometers of marine territory.

Since its launch in 2007, the CMBD has been investigating sustainable processing and commercialization methods for South Australian microalgae, sea sponges, fish, rock lobsters, sea cucumbers and seaweed. The idea has been to transform these marine bioresources into high-value products for human nutrition, pharmaceuticals and medical materials.

“Australia has unique marine biological diversity,” says Professor Zhang. “Nearly 70% of our marine biota is unique to our region, and marine biotechnology builds on this natural asset.”

The CMBD is developing clean, sustainable technologies for existing operations, while also inventing advanced processing technologies and products for new industries. Professor Zhang is focused on immediate business development, and ambitious plans for “Australia’s future dream” of establishing new job-creating industries for marine bioproducts.

“South Australia has almost 15% of the world’s recorded diversity for red and brown seaweeds, which are the most commercially valuable species. But we don’t have endless quantities to use for commercial production,” he says. “It’s important to develop technology that’s sustainable and conserves the resources and diversity.”

Those priorities are at the heart of the CMBD’s approach, as well as pursuing energy-efficient and water-saving methods. “When we work with industry partners, we start with improvements to their technology to minimize waste, improve efficiencies and justify that initial business investment,” says Professor Zhang. “Once they taste the sweets of what one of our technologies can offer, then they can move onto the next!”

The CMBD is supported by industry, State Government, Australian Research Council (ARC) and Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) funding and has already seen the commercialization of some key projects. Many more are in the pipeline.

Microwave Intensified Technology

One of these, called Microwave Intensified Technology, has transformed the production of seaweed fertilizer by Australian Kelp Products (AKP), a South Australian seaweed products company. A process that once took up to three months now takes six to nine hours, dramatically increasing productivity while reducing use of water and chemicals.

This means the factory space required is just 1% of what it was before the technology was introduced, according to Professor Zhang.

Another of Professor Zhang’s concepts is a calcium supplement, to be developed in collaboration with China’s Gather Great Ocean Group (CSIRO) – one of the world’s largest seaweed processors. “One in six children in Australia are lactose-intolerant and cannot get sufficient calcium from dairy products,” he says.

Calci-boom, a lunchbox product

The Flinders team combined extracts from brown seaweed and minerals from lobster shells — a seafood-processing waste product — to create Calci-boom, a supplement that can be made into a lunchbox product, such as a jelly or drink. “It’s important to consume the required nutrients, but it’s difficult to get children to eat things they don’t like,” he says. “We needed to make it tasty and edible, rather than via capsules or tablets, because they hate them.”

Driven by the global market demand for clean, green and effective marine bioproducts, Flinders is now leading a bid to form the first industry-led, national R&D platform for this emerging industry sector, called the Marine Bioproducts and Biotechnology Cooperative Research Centre (MBB-CRC).

The MBB-CRC already has 37 industry and eight university partners on board. Professor Zhang says a CRC is essential to realizing Australia’s immense marine wealth and boosting its competitiveness internationally.

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