Fredrika Gullfot and her colleagues grow algae. Two thousand square meters of abandoned greenhouses in Hammenhög in southern Sweden have been transformed from cultivating flowers and other plants to the production of single-celled algae. “We grow algae in a large number of five centimetre-wide glass tubes. The algae need light, carbon dioxide, some nutrients, and of course water, “says Fredrika Gullfot, who is CEO of the company.
“By growing in glass tubes, we optimize the availability of light. Bubbling occurs as we lead air into the pipes. Our algae farm is the first of its kind in Sweden, but abroad algae oil is a growing trend,” adds Gullfot. “Under Swedish conditions, growing algae yields 22 times more oil per hectare compared to the cultivation of rapeseed.”
Oil from algae
Plankton is a single-celled plant that lives in fresh and salt water all over the earth. Simris Alg starts from their own or purchased stock cultures and in vessels proliferate algae by cell division. It is quite slow in the beginning but after a few weeks, the algae culture grows up and is ready to be harvested. Algae mass is dried and ground, and through bio-refining, various chemical products are isolated like enzymes, fatty acids, pigments, antioxidants, proteins and amino acids. Algae oil can be used as feedstock for biofuels and the residual mass can be digested into biogas. When the algae are used for fuel production, the wastewater can provide nutrients for growth.
The global interest in what can be extracted from algae has increased. Among other things, the aerospace industry sees opportunities with algae to replace fossil fuels. A future scenario adopted by U.S. President Barack Obama aims to have 17 percent of the country’s fuel needs coming from cultivated algae. Swedish municipalities also see algae as a source of biogas. The food industry has its eyes on algae to produce dyes, fatty acids and antioxidants. Plankton can for example be used to extract the omega-3 fats used in food supplements.
“Algae oil can replace fish oil to limit overfishing,” says Gullfot. “A half a billion crowns of Omega 3 fish oil is sold in Sweden per year” Globally, 100,000 tons of fish oil is produced per year and demand is growing by 8 percent per year. “The food industry is also looking for environmentally friendly products that can substitute palm oil. The day the technology is mature enough to produce algae oil cheap in a really large scale will open up another huge market for Simris Alg and others.”
Algae can be grown in a relatively small area and the raw materials are almost free. One problem to solve is energy. Running pumps, greenhouse lights and dryers consumes a lot of electricity. “We established ourselves in southeast Skåne to get access to as much sunlight as possible. We have also been involved in an international project called AlgaePARC. The project seeks to make large-scale algae cultivation more energy efficient and therefore economically viable for the production of biofuels,” says Gullfot.
“Profitability is already available for the production of food ingredients, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, but the production of biofuels at competitive prices is a challenge. The project, which is operated in the Netherlands is run together with the chemical company BASF, food company Unilever and energy company Exxon Mobil,” says Gullfot.
Acclaimed business idea
Simris Alg has received much attention in Sweden and internationally. The idea came from Fredrika Gullfot and Tony Fagerberg, students at KTH in Stockholm and Lund University, respectively. They had followed the international trend and were convinced that cultured microalgae could contribute to the development of renewable energy and the transition to sustainable food production. Their vision was to build a cutting-edge facility for the cultivation and production of microalgae, and to establish Simris Alg as a powerful drive motor in the development of microalgae technology in Sweden.
So far it has gone well and the basic idea has become a reality. The main focus of Simris Alg is to use algae to develop diet and feed supplements for both humans and animals. Even horses, dogs and cats need omega-3 fats. In time, the activities also will also cover the development and production of biofuels. The Explanatory Memorandum to Region Skåne’s 2012 Environmental Award, which was awarded to Simris Alg, noted that “Simris Alg works with a key technology to replace today’s fossil fuels and is a key player in environmental engineering in Sweden.”
Sweden also has the firm Asta Real specializing in algae cultivation. The company is owned by the Japanese company Fuji Chemical Industry and produces antioxidants used in foods, animal feed and cosmetics.
The article was published in March 2013