Turning the humble algae into gold

September 18th, 2014 Author: Cal Powell  |  706-542-3536  |  More about Cal
Contact: Suraj Sharma  |  706-542-7353  | More about Suraj

It began with an introduction in 2009.

Two professors, one a biological engineer, the other whose research focuses on bioplastics, met in a lab hidden by pine trees and scrub oaks miles from the center of the University of Georgia campus.

A few days after that initial meeting, a package arrived at Dr. Suraj Sharma’s office in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, a sort of “welcome to Athens” gift from Dr. K.C. Das, his colleague in the College of Engineering and a noted scholar in the field of biofuels.

Inside the package was granulated algae, extracted from wastewater and full of the building block for bioplastic: protein.

When Sharma (pictured) subjected the fine green powder to thermomechanical processing – heat and pressure applied at a steady rate – the resulting bioplastic gave the experienced scientist a rush.

“It was a very exciting moment,” Sharma said. “It opened new areas of opportunity.”

The bioplastic was brittle, and was a few tweaks away from the recipe that he and others would come to perfect, but for a scientific community looking for a sustainable bioplastic, Sharma’s creation was a breakthrough.

“These proteins had low value because they were grown on wastewater, so being able to make a product out of it was definitely a positive outcome,” said Das, whose interest in algae was rooted in its uses as a biofuel.

That initial meeting served as the foundation for an interdisciplinary partnership that continues today, and injected enthusiasm into a field in the early stages of expansion.

Ultimately, that meeting in a nondescript lab in south Athens even led to the founding of an Athens-based company, Algix, by a Das protégé, that continues to push the science ahead.

From a satellite, the images show up a bright, radiant green. Even a novice would notice the wispy, fluorescent blooms scattered about the Mississippi Delta.

To Ryan Hunt, the sight of all that algae growing practically uncontrolled in catfish farms throughout Alabama and Mississippi represented one thing: opportunity.

Hunt, who studied under Das before graduating with a master’s degree in biological and agricultural engineering in 2010, was intrigued with the potential inherent in Sharma’s bioplastic creation.

Operating with a grant from the Georgia Research Alliance and in collaboration with Sharma’s lab, Hunt spun off the technology and created Algix with a local packaging expert and entrepreneur, Mike Van Drunen.

“By using algae, we have a non-food based crop that can treat wastewater, it can be incorporated into sustainable energy production and we can actually produce a material we can use to produce consumer goods,” Hunt said.

Initially, Algix started out doing a lot of compression molding: creating various bioplastic products like flower pots to demonstrate the potential of the science.

Eventually, the company found its way into its current status as a “master batcher,” which involves blending algae with a synthetic or biodegradable polymer such as polyethylene and PLA to create small pellets.

These pellets then are sold to a converter to create a bioplastic product: flower pots, for example, or packaging.

Algix’s current formulations are about 40-50 percent algae. The algae, harvested at either a wastewater facility or catfish farms, can be mixed with a specific polymer depending on the needs of the buyer.

Hunt recalls a convention of algae industry executives and scientists a couple years ago. He showed up with pots and injection-molded boxes and little dog bone prototypes of their product.

“Nobody had anything,” Hunt said, laughing, “and we showed up with algae and a bunch of dog bones and people’s heads were exploding.”

Suddenly, it seemed, business was looking good.

Algae is not exactly hard to find. It’s practically everywhere, in fact: livestock farms, wastewater plants, aquaculture facilities.

Harvesting it into something useful for lab purposes, however, can be tedious – and expensive.

Algix’s first major foray into the algae acquisition business involved a wastewater facility in California.

The 37-acre facility now supplies Algix with about 500,000 pounds of dry weight algae per year for a small fee, where previously the algae was simply given away to area farmers as fertilizer.

Algix also purchases about 10,000 pounds a year from Aurora Algae, a supplier in California, and some from the effluence off of carpet mills in Dalton.

It was not enough.

“We wanted to control the supply chain dynamics,” Hunt said.

Shortly after startup, a contact at Auburn University introduced Hunt and his partners to some catfish farmers in Alabama and Mississippi.

Algae has plagued catfish farmers for years. As a photosynthetic bloom, algae releases oxygen during the day. At night, it respires, releasing carbon dioxide into the water. Too much, and it causes fish kills.

“It grows so fast, you can’t get rid of it completely,” Hunt said, “but you can manage it.”

Working quickly, Hunt and his partners lined up agreements with catfish farmers in the area. Using a mobile harvesting unit that includes what is essentially “a 2,500-gallon Wet-Vac,” the algae is pumped out, hauled to a storage unit, de-watered and dried.

The process takes the algae from about 5 percent solid to roughly 95 percent solid, and can produce 900 pounds of dry weight algae per hour.

Expensive equipment aside, it’s actually a pretty simple concept.

“You’ve got companies borrowing $150 million to create algae production systems when there’s a huge algae production system in Mississippi,” said Ashton Zeller, Algix director of research and development and former technician in Sharma’s lab. “They’re growing more algae per pound (of fish food) than catfish.”

Algix’s extensive efforts to lock down the supply seems to be paying off.

“Right now, I think we’re pretty much the biggest algae holder in the country, easily,” Hunt said.

Via the Algix-run website, http://www.buyalgae.com, buyers can order everything from “green algae consortia” to “Haematococcus pluvialis” by the pound, most of it in bright green or red powder form.

A full chemical analysis of the algae, performed by the UGA feed analysis lab, is also provided.

Algix regularly receives orders for its product, from plastic industry executives to moms of middle school kids working on science projects.

While Algix continues to expand – the company employs 30 people in several states, owns a fish farm in Jamaica and is looking to reach into China – Sharma also is advancing the science in his labs.

While algae harvested from farms or wastewater facilities can’t be used for medical or food applications, the protein-rich algae grown under very controlled conditions does have that potential.

Sharma is primarily interested in extracting protein isolates, or purified protein, from the algae biomass that can potentially have medical applications or other high-end value products.

“It takes time and the yield may be low because it’s not like the protein is just freely found in the algae cells,” Sharma said. “These are multi-cellular structures. You have to be harsh during your extraction.”

For Sharma, who teaches classes in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences in product development that often emphasize innovation, the potential of this new research is intriguing.

“It’s exciting because we worked on this technology which has direct implications to improve human wellbeing by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels,” he said. “We are showing these students that there are alternative materials that are sustainable, and that there are ways we can be green.”

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