The alternative food sector has produced “ecovados” made from broad beans, plant-based beef, chickpea water eggs and California start-up Wildtype’s lab-grown salmon. Algae may beat them all. Its versatility means this aquatic slime can be turned into both food and fuel.
Most start-ups focus on microalgae rather than seaweed, aka macroalgae. Microalgae are single-cell organisms. They can be cultivated in freshwater or seawater, in both the light and the dark. The protein content of dried microalgae is higher than that of soyabean — a crop that requires more water to farm and has led to deforestation.
Microalgae is already being used in supplements and food. Triton Algae Innovations has raised $10mn for its algae-based tuna alternative. New Wave Foods has raised $20mn to create faux shrimp using algae.
The market remains small — less than $3bn as of last year. One significant downside is the grassy or fish taste. Brevel uses microalgae grown in a lab to create a protein that is neutral tasting and can be added to plant-based foods. But this requires extra processing.
If that sounds unappetising, algae can also be used to create materials. US start-up Primary Ocean creates farmed seaweed in refineries that can be converted into bioplastics and fertiliser. Aurora Algae produces algae-based products for pharmaceutical and fuel markets.
California’s Global Algae won an early-stage prize from Elon Musk’s carbon removal competition this year with its plan to cultivate algae and restore rainforests by capturing carbon dioxide. Pittsburgh start-up AlgenAir uses algae for air filtration systems that reduce carbon dioxide. It has a ventilation system at Pittsburgh international airport. But algae’s possible use as a biomass fuel depends on mass production. In Japan, companies including Honda are part of a team working on microalgae fuel development.
One option could be to use the algae that already exists. Rising temperatures have led to a record algae bloom in San Francisco Bay, for example. Algix harvests algae blooms that take over freshwater systems and have been linked to pollution and climate change. It dries out the algae collected and uses it to create a Bloom Foam polymer. Brands such as Clarks and Adidas are already using the material, proving the versatility of this micro-organism.
If you are a subscriber and would like to receive alerts when Lex articles are published, just click the button “Add to myFT”, which appears at the top of this page above the headline.