Cellana grows photosynthetic algae in salt water, a technology it has been refining at its test facility on the Kona Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. Cellana is pursing a three pronged approach of biofuel, animal feed ingredients, and, at the highest value level and driving the bus, so to speak, are omega 3 oils for nutraceutical and pharmaceutical applications, according to CEO Martin Sabarsky. The company has also worked on astaxanthin production, he said.
“Less than 10% of the biomass we grow through photosynthesis drives 80% to 90% of the product value,” Sabarsky told NutraIngredients-USA. “But at the same time, that remaining 90% of the biomass can be a great source of fuel oils and feed in volume markets. The challenge is to address those markets in an economic way that can scale. By having a small amount of this anchor, high value product it drives the whole model.”
Algae can be grown in a variety of ways according to species. DSM bases its technology on fermentation; some other photosynthesizers use closed bioreactor systems of varying designs. Cellana uses the tried and true open pond approach. It’s rapidly expandable at relatively low cost, but it does come with some drawbacks. But Cellana has developed an approach to try to minimize the Achilles heel of open raceways, namely, contamination by unwanted organisms.
“There are a lot of interesting things being done in the lab, but there is a huge gulf between the lab and being able to do things in actual production at an industrial scale,” Sabarsky said.
“The trick is using strains that have never been able to be grown outdoors without changing the chemistry of the ponds. The big bugaboo in outdoor ponds is contamination. What we’ve been able to do is to start with a small, closed bioreactor at first that develops enough innoculant to then be able to seed into open ponds and you don’t let the batch sit there for more than a week or two so that it doesn’t get contaminated. It’s a continuous batch hydroprocess that we’ve patented,” he said.
Sabarksy said this approach that the company has refined in Hawaii can be duplicated around the globe in locations where costs are in line, sunlight is plentiful, and markets are close at hand. Sabarsky mentioned Southeast Asia as a possible expansion location.
Cellana was founded with a big investment from Shell Oil Company. While Shell ownership is no longer part of the corporate picture, that early push means fuel and feed applications are closest to market, according to newly-appointed president Michael Kamdar. But nutraceutical and pharmaceutical applications won’t be far behind; the company plans to bring omega 3 oils to market in 2014, Kamdar said.
“We’ve been doing testing with omega 3 partners,” he said. “The pharma path is really a matter of selecting the right indication.”