Turning pollution into profit: how algae farming can protect the Great Barrier Reef and create new jobs

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Australia21 - Detail of algaeAustralian regional economies and the environment will be the winners from an innovative new technology that converts nutrient pollution from industry and municipal water treatment into valuable algae biomass. That’s the finding of the latest Australia21 report, Opportunities for an expanded algal industry in Australia.

Though algae farming is in its infancy, the report predicts it will grow into a major new industry worth tens of millions of dollars to regional economies annually, ultimately becoming a multi-billion dollar industry.

Australia21’s report was launched at Parliament House in Canberra in August 2017, with the support of Greens Senator Janet Rice, as well as diverse scientists, entrepreneurs, experienced government policymakers and futurists who participated in the high-level Roundtable that led to the publication.

It notes the current scaling-up of pilot projects into commercial operations and expects the technology to become mainstream.

 

Australia21 - Great Barrier Reef (australia.com)

australia.com

Cleaning up the Great Barrier Reef

For example, one Australian company is harvesting nutrient rich waste water from aquaculture that would otherwise have contributed to pollution of the Great Barrier Reef, to grow valuable seaweed in purpose-built raceways. In addition to providing a water remediation service to aquaculture, the company plans to partner with Councils along the Queensland coast to more effectively treat municipal waste water.

Australia21 - Catchment runoff entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon north of Mossman (Qld Dept of Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry)

Catchment runoff entering the Great Barrier Reef lagoon north of Mossman (Qld Dept of Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry)

“The Great Barrier Reef is under assault not only from global warming, but also nutrient-rich runoff from the land. Algae farming is an enterprise that can clean up polluted water – as well providing a host of valuable by-products and creating new jobs, particularly in regional areas,” said Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas, the Australia21 Director who chaired the Roundtable in November 2016.

The by-product stream from algae farming can be processed into health foods for human consumption, stockfeed for animals and fish, ‘green’ plastics and textiles, fertiliser, fine chemicals and even renewable transport fuels, the report found.

“It’s not just the Great Barrier Reef that can benefit. Algae technology could be applied throughout the Murray-Darling Basin and in many water catchments of Australia, where nutrient disposal from towns, agriculture and other industries is a challenge,” said Professor Douglas.

 

A competitive edge, as climate change impacts

Australia has among the highest levels of sunlight in the world, plenty of nutrient-rich waste from the food chain, agriculture and sewage and many species of micro-algae and macro-algae. These can be grown in brackish or salt water, on land that is not suitable for other crops, and in the sea. These are huge and valuable resources which are currently not being exploited.

“Algae farming can make a major contribution to Australia’s future food security,” said science writer Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine, who contributed to the report.

“Algae will continue to grow under climatic conditions that will kill wheat or rice crops,” he said.

It is also technically feasible to use algae to produce ‘green oil’ – renewable transport biofuel. While current low world oil prices make this uneconomic, it nevertheless offers Australia scope for future transport fuel independence, providing security and insurance against oil shocks.

 

Making algae farming reliable and scalable

Australia21’s report acknowledges there are still many complex questions to be addressed, including how best to establish an industry that is reliable enough and scalable enough to make a practical, positive contribution to Australia’s needs.

In recent years, more than $100 million has been invested, mainly by the private sector, in growing micro and macro algae to provide high-value molecules of nutritional, pharmaceutical and health significance.

Scientists in Australian universities have partnered with innovative Australian companies, such as bioremediation specialists MBD, to help design and deliver major commercial projects – including construction of a new integrated aquaculture facility near Bowen, expected to commence this year.

“We’re proof that good science and smart innovation can not only provide an essential clean-up service that protects jobs within important industries and communities, but create valuable algae based products and new jobs in the process,” said MBD Managing Director, Andrew Lawson.

 

Drawing a coherent roadmap

The use of algae as stockfeed for the aquaculture industry has already been fostered by a comprehensive program of research and development, and supported by the Australian Government’s Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. Australia21’s report calls for an equivalent effort to be made for other algae uses.

“Establishing the optimum solutions cannot be left up to individual researchers and investors pursuing self-identified projects, however laudable they are,” said Australia21 Chairman Paul Barratt.

“This is going to require a nationally coordinated approach ― not necessarily a highly centralised one ― and significant government funding of pre-competitive research, the benefits of which can be available to all stakeholders,” he said.

The Roundtable recognised that algal farming in Australia needs improved coordination and a coherent roadmap that can be supported by the existing companies and scientists, as well as enabling broader understanding in the community and in government agencies.

Australia21 - NASA satellite image of Burdekin River flood plume February 2008

NASA satellite image of Burdekin River flood plume February 2008

Opportunities for an expanded algal industry in Australia recommends:

  1. An Australian algal industry working group with representation from the various universities, companies and entrepreneurs operating in the space.
  2. Development of a five-year roadmap for the industry, including identification of the critical success factors.
  3. A detailed plan to apply algal technology to minimisation of nutrient runoff into the Great Barrier Reef, through scaling up pilot projects in its catchments.
  4. A review of the contribution algal technology can make to Australian food security, especially in the context of climate change.
  5. A review of the potential for biofuel production to contribute to fuel security, in the context of future international supply crises and Australia’s dependence on road transport for food supplies and regional prosperity.
  6. Mapping of the relative suitability of regional areas for algal industry development, according to local attributes.

 

All algae farming images courtesy of MBD.

 
 
 

Roundtable participants

 

Sue Bestow: program management and strategic direction setting for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation in the Australian Government.

Dr Susan Blackburn: Senior Science Advisor to the Australian National Algae Culture Collection, one of CSIRO’s National Research Collections.

Paul Barratt: Chair of Australia21; former Secretary of Defence and also Primary Industries and Energy in the Australian Government.

Emeritus Prof. Michael Borowitzka: Professor in Phycology at Murdoch University; Adjunct Professor at the Climate Change Cluster (C3) at the University of Technology, Sydney; Adjunct Professor at Borneo Marine Research Institute, Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

Dr Steven Cork: ecologist and futurist; Adjunct Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU; a Director of Australia21 and Chair of its Research Committee.

Julian Cribb: a journalist, author and grumpy iconoclast.

Emeritus Prof. Bob Douglas: a Director of Australia21; retired ANU public health academic.

Dr David Evans: science team leader for Army and Navy (Fuels and Lubricants) within the Defence Science and Technology Group.

Emeritus Prof. Ian Falconer: former Deputy Vice Chancellor of The University of Adelaide; member of the scientific advisory committee for Water Quality Research Australia.

Mr Geoff Gorrie: consultant/company director specialising in primary industries; former Chair of Australian Forestry Standards Ltd; a Director of Australia21.

Professor Ben Hankamer: University of Queensland; founding director of the Solar Biofuels Consortium (2007) and Centre for Solar Biotechnology.

Kirsten Heimann: James Cook University Townsville; has more than 30 years research experience
in industrial microbial biotechnology.

Dr Patrick Hone: CEO of the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation in the Australian Government.

Tom Jenkins: member of YoungA21; Bachelor of Environment (environmental politics) and Master of Environment (climate change policy), University of Melbourne.

Andrew Lawson: Managing Director of MBD Energy Ltd.

Professor David Lewis: CEO of Muradel Pty Ltd, commercialising the production of sustainable oils from organic feedstocks; Professor at the University of Adelaide in the School of Chemical Engineering.

Dr Gregory Martin: Senior Lecturer in the Department
of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering and the head of the Algal Processing Group, University of Melbourne.

Professor Navid Moheimani: Director of Murdoch University Algae R&D Centre.

Professor Ian O’Hara: Professor in the Centre for
Tropical Crops and Biocommodities (CTCB) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Peter Ottesen: Assistant Secretary, Sustainable Agriculture Branch in the Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.

Dr Susan Pond: senior leader in business and academia, recognised for her national and international influence in medicine, biotechnology and renewable energy.

Professor Peter Ralph: leads an Algal Biosystems research team at The University of Technology Sydney.

Senator Janet Rice: Greens Senator from Victoria and spokesperson on Agriculture; former Mayor of Marybyrnong; former water policy officer, Victorian Department of Water Resources.

Kelly-Anne Saffine: Chief Executive Officer for Regional Development Australia, Yorke and Mid North.

Professor Peer Schenk: Professor in Plant Science and Microbiology in the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, University of Queensland, where he heads the Algae Biotechnology Laboratory; CSO for Qponics Pty Ltd.

David Vinson: a Director of Plentex Ltd.

Professor Wei Zhang: Professor of Marine Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, Flinders University; Founding Director of Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development.

 

Contributors who did not attend the Roundtable

 

John Blackburn: former Deputy Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force; consultant in the fields of defence and national security.

Les Edye: Head of R&D, Leaf Resources; National Task leader, International Energy Agency, Bioenergy Task 39 ― Commercialising Advanced and Conventional Liquid Biofuels from Biomass.

Scott Grierson: Adjunct Associate Professor in the Centre for Biotechnology, Chemistry and Systems Biology Deakin University, Geelong.

Graeme Pearman: former head of the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Science; private consultant.

Greg Pullen: regional economist specialising in the development and expansion of industry sectors within the Shoalhaven regional economy of NSW.

Pia Winberg: CEO of
Venus Shell Systems Pty. Ltd. and PhycoFood Co, taking the science of marine biological systems through to production of high quality seaweed for foods.



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