Macroalgae made in Sigmundshall
K+S Innovation Lab is testing whether the cultivation of marine plants in a laboratory facility is possible and economically viable at Sigmundshall for one year.
What exactly is happening and how promising is the pilot project?
With the world's population growing the importance of, and need for, alternative food and protein sources is increasing. Marine algae are one option. They are particularly nutritious and are on the menu in Asia and America. In addition, a raw material is extracted from the cell walls of certain algae species for use in food processing, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and animal feed industries. Its name is Carrageenan. The increasing global demand for algae is mainly met by aquacultures in Asia. But that will not be enough in the long term.
K+S Innovation Labs Ag Tech & Nutrition and Industrial Science see great potential in this business segment and have started a one-year pilot project at the Sigmundshall site. As external consultants, they were able to contact the marine biologist and botanist Prof. Dr. Klaus Lüning of Sylter Algenfarm GmbH & Co. KG. The professor brings decades of experience to the project and accompanies the feasibility study. Everything began with an excursion to the North Sea beaches. The K+S innovation team collected the seeds from here: Wild algae from the coast and seed plants from the laboratory of the Sylt algae farm. The goal: the cultivation of a pure source culture. This is a prerequisite for later mass cultivation. At the same time, the algae should have a quality that is not yet available on the market. In comparison to laboratory cultivation, the marine harvest can be contaminated by pollutants: heavy metals, microplastics, an increased iodine content or radioactivity. "We rely on our many years of expertise with regard to production and handling certified quality standards as a supplier for the food and pharmaceutical industries," explains Stefanie, project manager for macroalgae at K+S Innovation Labs. "K+S also has an existing customer network in the algae processing industry.
Apprentices are also involved
Since summer 2018, there have been twelve basins in Sigmundshall in which three macroalgae varieties are cultivated: one green and one brown algae as well as one red alga as a supplier of the economically valuable carrageenan - an ingredient that is used, for example, as a gelling or thickening agent in puddings, ice cream or soups, and with its antioxidant properties, also in shampoos.
Together with the project team, the eleven trainees at the site also take care of the plants. Under the guidance of their trainer Sven - who is also responsible for the technical implementation of the project - they help with the daily maintenance of the plant and the algae harvest becasue it has to be harvested regularly, like in conventional agriculture. Otherwise, the biomass will stop growing. Every three and a half weeks, the macroalgae are harvested manually, the water is removed, the plants are weighed and measured then frozen. Macroalgae require much lower harvesting costs than microalgae.
And what does the algae need to thrive in an artificial environment?
Light, oxygen, exercise, the right temperature and salty water. "In the beginning, we had to constantly adjust the nutrient mix and light intensity," says technical project manager Sven. Together with algae expert Klaus Lüning, the chemical laboratory technician, a plant biotechnologist, a chemical engineer, and an economist looked for solutions and found them. The prototype of the Sigmundshall plant construction company includes: LED spotlights in the hall instead of sunlight, compressed air injected to circulate the water and keep the plants moving, as well as cooling units for the feel-good temperature, since macroalgae are cold water plants. They do not tolerate anything above 16 degrees. Special filters prevent undesirable algae growth. After all, the laboratory algae need artificial seawater with the right nutrient solution. The experts are working on the optimal mix of iron, ammonium and nitrate. For algae analysis, the team is in close contact with the K+S Analytics and Research Center.
Considerable harvest volume
Once the feasibility study has been completed, the results will be evaluated. Questions such as the profitability of a possible large-scale plant or the conception of a business plan are addressed. The question is whether the investment in further developed test series is worthwhile. This could be the case, because the prototype works. For example, the biomass of the green algae doubles every three weeks. Even the sensitive carrageenan alga grows splendidly. This makes year-round cultivation and harvesting of a sequence of algae varieties conceivable. "This is a clear advantage in comparison to sea breeding, which is not possible due to the influence of the seaweed.