Some are concerned that the biofuel drive will deny algae its nutritional potential, although the moves by some suppliers to link with the biggest oil firms indicates another view – that the two sectors have much to learn from each other.
DSM and Martek Biosciences, the algae-sourced omega-3 specialist it acquired in 2011, is one example. Martek has been in partnership with oil titan BP for several years and says it has been a valuable learning experience for both companies – with technologies and knowhow being transferred both ways.
The two worked to maximise the omega-3 DHA specialist's microbial know-how and BP’s production and commercialisation experience via fermentation – sharing commercial gains in each other’s sector.
“Biofuels have not not compromised algal's potential in nutrition, if anything, it has helped further that development by offering alternative commercial development opportunities, funding, and R&D in such areas as fermentation, microbial selection, investigation and development,” said Hugh Welsh, president of DSM North America.
BP Biofuels CEO, Philip New, said of the partnership: "In partnering with Martek, we combine the world's leading know-how in microbial lipid production with our expertise in fuels markets and applications, and our more recent experience in biofuels production and commercialisation.”
Market full of promise
Roquette is another firm with a nascent algae business it began building in 2008 and intensified with a partnership with Solazyme that kicked into life last year.
“Microalgae represent a market full of promise seeking to realise its potential,” said R&D communication manager Carole Petit Jean.
“Its development in the biofuel and in the nutrition sector are not in opposition. The richness of microalgae enables its development in numerous sectors.”
Roquette is part of ALGOHUB, a European consortium that fosters and builds networks in microalgae’s nutrient potential in areas like omega-3, lutein and astaxanthin for food, food supplement and feed markets. Oil, protein and fibre-based ingredients are also being researched.
Petit Jean: “The aim of this network is to explore the potential of microalgae in different areas: Biodiversity, production, extraction and purification of active compounds of interest in nutrition-health, demonstration of their properties etc. but always focused on nutrition-health.”
Like DSM-Martek, she said the company had learnt from the biofuel sector.
“The microalgae development in different sectors makes it possible to increase expertise in research and associated technologies. Therefore, the different sectors take advantage of each other’s technological advances.”
While Roquette and DSM-Martek may some of the biggest firms in the sector there many up-and-coming players like Aurora Algae, which is extracting protein-rich powder and EPA-rich omega-3 oils from its Californian algae vats. But its algae is also being used for biofuels.