A new research project led by TNO could help to create a more robust and industrially viable algae ingredient supply chain, says the Dutch research group.
The programme, which claims to have produced a new method to ‘break open’ algae in a more economically and industrially viable way, could help to create new a bio-refinery process for the production of algae ingredients in food, animal feed and chemistry processes.
Speaking to FoodNavigator, Ronald Korstanje of TNO, explained that project, which is being run in conjunction with Dutch algae producer Ingepro, will result in the production of an industrial bio refinery pilot that they hope will produce algal ingredients for the food industry on a large, yet sustainable, scale.
Korstanje told this publication that whilst there are a lot of algae producers, they do not produce ingredients.
“Because of that end users are not informed or interested in using algae ingredients at this moment,” he argued. The TNO expert said the new project will try to link the end user demand of algae ingredients with a better supply chain.
“What is pivotal in this programme is that we are focusing on end user applications. We are not pushing technology, but getting interest from the perspective of algae suppliers and of end ingredient users ... The programme is all about making the link through that chain,” explained Korstanje.
Korstanje explained that algae, in general, “have quite a tough cell wall”, that is completely different from most plants. He said that because the wall was tougher, and more complex than many other plants, it is not as easy to break them open and remove the ingredients using normal processing methods.
“In order to break open the algae, you have to apply energy. The way you apply this to the algae is very important,” he explained.
“We have been testing a range of processes and technologies to break down the cell walls ... In the end we are looking for a technology that can also be applied. To look for strategies that are economically feasible for business,” said the Dutch researcher.
By combining different methods and creating new ways to operate, he explained that the TNO team have found a way to achieve a positive energy balance when compared to the value from the ingredients extracted – so making “a positive business case”.
Korstanje said that the protein rubisco is found in algae in very high concentrations. He noted that the protein has good functionality for food applications due to its structuring properties that make it useful for stabilising foams and gives it “high potential uses in meat replacement products.
He added that algae also contains proteins and carbohydrates that may be of interest for food processing. But he noted that the potential applications are less known due to the complex nature of the ingredients.
There are also fats and oils found in algae – such as omega-3 oils – which Korstanje said would have applications in the food and nutrition sectors.
He noted that currently, supplier or processor refined a variety of ingredients from algal sources, explaining that the major focus for industry so far has been in extracting nutritionally important oils such as omega-3 fatty acids.
The pilot programme will at first produce ingredients for end users at a 10kg scale, however Korstanje added that in the future the team are looking to build up to an industrial scale of around 1000kg.
The initial pilot phase of the project will last around a year and a half, and is due to begin in early 2012.