Why is astaxanthin so hard to produce on a commercial scale?
By Elaine WATSON
- Last updated on
Producing spirulina is “child’s play” compared with astaxanthin, at least when you’re trying to do it on a commercial scale, says chief science officer Gerry Cysewski.
“Spirulina is produced in a highly alkaline environment of pH 10-11 so nothing else is going to grow in there, whereas astaxanthin grows in a more neutral pH environment so contamination is a much bigger risk.”
There are two other key players aside from Cyanotech producing astaxanthin commercially from Haematococcus pluvialis microalgae, and while all three have very efficient systems, Cyanotech’s has key advantages, he argues.
The key difference is that Fuji (which produces astaxanthin in artificially-lighted ‘BioDomes’ in Sweden) and Algatechnologies (which grows it in a vast network of glass tubes in the desert in southern Israel) both use completely ‘closed’ systems.
While intuitively, a closed system might seem less vulnerable to contamination, this is a misconception, claims Cysewski.
In fact, closed culture systems can just as easily be contaminated by unwanted algae, fungi, and protozoa and when this does occur, getting rid of these unwanted guests can be difficult if not impossible because of the high surface area and ‘nooks and crannies’ in such systems, he argues.
Indeed, persistent contamination of closed culture systems has led to serious problems for rivals, he claims, speculating that this might lie behind Fuji’s recent decision to shut down its facility in Maui, Hawaii, and consolidate production in Sweden (although Fuji insisted this was part of a strategic re-alignment and not due to problems at Maui).
By contrast, Cyanotech grows its astaxanthin in closed culture systems and then puts them through a 'reddening' cycle in large open culture ponds, which are much easier to clean.
But isn’t an open culture system more vulnerable in other ways?
Not really, argues Cysewski, who notes that Cyanotech’s location on the coast of Kona-Kailua has less than 12 inches of rainfall a year (and when the water levels rise in the ponds, the excess is simply drained off, he says. “More than an inch affects the chemistry”).
The only really anxious time was in 2007 when there was more than eight inches of rain in a week, he recalls. “But we got through it, and even if we were to have a freak storm, it would only potentially cause a short delay, not kill off the business.”