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Though is not found on most dinner plates, algae can be a healthy source of protein and amino acids. However, it is generally only consumed in pill form as a health supplement due to its fishy taste.

The Delft start-up, FUL Foods, has figured out a way to refine microalgae and turn it into a refreshing, fizzy tonic. They currently refine it in breweries and have recently received a grant from the RVO to perform a feasibility study of growing microalgae using the brewery’s excess CO2 emissions.

“If you take CO2 which would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere and use it to produce nutrient dense ingredients – that, to us, is the food of the future,” says Julia Streuli, Co-founder and CEO of FUL Foods.

The microalgae is grown in open ponds or photobioreactors: large, transparent tubes which let in light through their walls and act like solar receivers. Using photosynthesis, the microalgae absorb the light, as well as excess CO2, and use them as an energy source to create food. The remaining light absorption heats the tank to optimal temperatures for algae growth.

On its own, it’s not as valuable but, through refining it, we were able to create several valuable ingredients and products

Julia Streuli – Co-founder and CEO of FUL Foods.

Through the natural process of fermentation, breweries produce about three times as much CO2 as they need to use for carbonation. FUL is seeing if it is feasible to take and store this excess CO2, pump it into photobioreactors, and produce microalgae that is then used as a superfood.

Refining microalgae

Streuli and her co-founders, Sara Guaglio and Cristina Prat, met while in an MBA program at INSEAD in Singapore and bonded over a desire to form a sustainability-focused company. Prat had seen microalgae used as a biofuel alternative during her work in the oil and gas industry and the three began to study the other uses microalgae could serve.

They found that microalgae has many useful properties: from its use in supplements and pharmaceuticals, to plastic manufacturing, and as a way to reduce emissions from cattle. Because of the multifunctionality of microalgae, Streuli and her founders began to view it in the same way we view crude oil – though, instead of for fuel, they were more interested in its use for food.

“It’s sort of the same way we saw microalgae,” says Streuli. “On its own, it’s not as valuable but, through refining it, we were able to create several valuable ingredients and products.”

Microalgae as food (and drink)

Humans have been eating microalgae for hundreds of years. For example, the Aztecs harvested the blue-green slime from streams and made dried patties out of it. It has 15 times more protein than soy, is an antioxidant, and is a source of vitamins C, B1, B2, B12, K, Zinc, Iron and Magnesium.

While the Aztecs found a way to turn it into food, microalgae ingested raw from nature can make people sick (not to mention the fishy taste). The slime is not very soluble and will eventually turn from blue-green to brown if left in the light too long.

In 2019, Julia and her co-founders flew to the Netherlands, one of the food-science capitals of the world, to figure out a way to overcome these issues and turn microalgae into a soluble superfood. Within the first few weeks, they connected with Wageningen University (who research algae growth in bioreactors), hired a food scientist, and began a year-long process of research and development to refine microalgae.

Refined microalgae © FUL Foods

The methods FUL developed – methods they have filed patents for – have created FUL®, which is a soluble and neutral tasting microalgae ingredient that retains its blue-green coloring. Their first consumer product, FUL® Superfood Tonic, is full of flavor and it is naturally colored a vibrant shade of blue because of this ingredient. They also managed to simplify the refining process so that it can be done with standard brewery equipment.

The future of sustainable food

As the food industry looks for ways to become more sustainable, finding ways to incorporate microalgae into mainstream food production offers a novel solution to lowering one’s carbon footprint. Microalgae is many times more efficient than trees at absorbing CO2 from our environment. “It is literally responsible for over half the oxygen we breath,” explains Streuli.

When grown in photobioreactors, like those at Lgem|Synalgae – the bioreactor technology company producing the microalgae FUL uses – microalgae flourishes and is able to be harvested daily.

“That is the great thing about microalgae – they are always ready!”, says Marieke Vanthoor, Director of R&D at Lgem|Synalgae

Lgem|Synalgae have developed a patented two-phase system for their bioreactors that exchanges oxygen produced by microalgae with CO2 in a continuous, controlled way. They are able to utilize stored CO2 – such as leftover CO2 from breweries – and can even recycle the water that the microalgae grows in.

Photobioreactors at Lgem|Synalgae – © FUL Foods

Once grown, FUL refines the microalgae into a superfood ingredient. What is not used in the ingredient are the non-soluble parts – fatty acids, beta carotene, and certain proteins. FUL are researching ways to create new products with the leftover biomass.

“There are many compelling paths we could have taken to unlock the potential of microalgae in our world,” says Streuli.

For now, however, the focus is on exploring the economic and technical feasibility of growing the microalgae with the leftover emissions from beer production. FUL will complete the study in spring of 2021. 

Read about how growing algae in photobioreactor may be our ticket to colonizing Mars