Algae constitute an unlimited and still underexploited biomass reservoir wherein lies a key raw material for our future. The interest and hope of those involved in the bioeconomy are high. New substances, new strains, new processes, new markets: France has joined the innovation movement which seeks to make the most of the intrinsic characteristics and the high potential of this renewable resource.
An inspiring subject
“The sea is a vast reservoir of chemical compounds, the algae worked for industry, by condensing, in their tissues, the salts that the waters where they live contain in small proportions. The problem was therefore to economically extract all the useful compounds from these algae.” In 1884, Émile Zola created a character for a novel1 who was excited about a project to exploit algae, considered by him to be a natural treasure that could make him his fortune. Promising in the naturalistic literature of the 19th century, today algae are a very inspiring subject for research and of great interest for industry. Proliferating in aquatic environments, they contain original molecules of a richness, heterogeneity and diversity incomparable with terrestrial resources, which open up colossal perspectives for humanity when we know that there are myriads of species, of which only a few thousand have been identified and a tiny part is exploited. Even though Asia is ahead of the curve, we are all only at the early stages of valuing this immeasurable biomass.
“Sectors of the future”
After the conference “Algae, filières du futur” and the ensuing Turquoise Book 10 years ago, which was the first manifestation of a federative action2 to promote the use of their biological properties on French territory; the 2019 report of the CGAAER3 on “The development of the blue bioeconomy” confirmed the strategic importance of this insufficiently exploited resource despite being likely to respond in a sustainable manner not only to food needs but also to a part of material and energy requirements. Where are we today?
The webinar organized by IAR with and for its members in June 2020 made it possible to draw up an overview of the knowledge on this resource and to assess its potential, by differentiating between the macro-algae (large algae attached to the bottom of the water) and micro-algae (microscopic algae floating in open water) sectors, for which cultivation methods, harvesting techniques, transformation processes, markets, and innovation pathways may differ.
The macro-algae sector is mature and growing steadily in recent years, stimulated by the Asian continent, which is the world’s main producer and consumer. Three quarters of the 27 million tonnes of industrially exploited macroalgae are intended for human consumption. Rich in fibres, minerals and proteins, they are used fresh or processed (hydrocolloids, carrageenan, alginate, agar-agar, etc.), in the form of rheology additives which allow food to be textured, or directly in cooking (Asian, condiments, accompanying vegetables). The remainder is distributed between the sectors of health (antivirals and other active molecules), cosmetics (gel, masks, toothpaste, anti-wrinkle …) agriculture (fertilisers), environment (water/waste treatment), animal additives. In France, ranked 10th in the world, 90% of the 75,000 tonnes of macroalgae produced annually is harvested in northern Brittany, mainly for the food colloids industry. Innovative French players are developing a new generation of products: seafood tartare, seafood madeleine, seaweed tea, vegan salmon…
In strong growth for five years, the microalgae sector has reached a stage of mature industrial development on products with high added value, supplied in limited quantities to the cosmetics, agri-food and nutraceutical markets. From microalgae, currently only 16,000 tonnes of dry matter are produced in the world per year (a few dozen in France), which is used for their content of pigments, lipids, proteins, polysaccharides and other vitamins. Beyond the very popular spirulina, they are emerging on mass markets (fish farming, health, etc.) and new applications (gaseous effluent pollution control) and have strong medium and long-term potential in intermediate markets. (animal feed, agriculture), and for commodity products (green chemistry, biomaterials, fuels, etc.). To accelerate these developments, the main French players in the sector, in partnership with four competitiveness clusters including IAR, came together at the end of 2015 within the France Micro-Algues (FMA) association.
Structuring an alliance
Summarizing recent publications4, Ronan Pierre, head of the Innovation & Products department at CEVA5, noted for the algae sector as a whole a convergence of observations and recommendations, which can be gathered in four points. “We are in the presence of a great diversity of actors: harvesters, producers, industrial users … including a large proportion of SMEs. Bringing them together and structuring this sometimes dispersed sector is necessary in order to strengthen their representation and influence, in particular with a view to changing regulations that are not always conducive to development. “Harmonizing the European regulatory and normative context is just as much a priority. “From country to country, policies, species allowed, procedures are different. We need standardization. The European Commission has started the preliminaries by creating a working group “algae and algo-products”, with a mirror group in France managed by CEVA. ”
Security of Supply
Another major issue for the sector: securing supply, that is to say guaranteeing the resource in terms of quality, durability, price and, of course, quantity. It is noteworthy that in Europe 99% of exploited algae come from harvesting, while in the world 95% comes from seaweed farming. “Seaweed farming is therefore an absolute requirement in Europe if we want to develop the volumes of available and usable biomass without exerting too much pressure on natural populations. There is still a lot of work to develop the production chain in an effort to cut costs, but things are starting to take off. Finally, the question of economic valuation also arises with great importance. “We must promote the transfer of technology and know-how, as well as access to platforms, and above all we must develop the biorefinery model, which is a major factor towards optimising the use of macroalgae and fully exploiting the material.” This requires breaking down technological barriers, improving processes and opening up the field of applications.
This is what research and heads of networks such as IAR are all about. Jacky Vandeputte, Scientific Director, Bioeconomy Innovation Manager at IAR: “For many years, marine and aquatic biomass valorisation strategies have focused on valorising one component or one main ingredient or an extract specific to biological activities. R&D work is now turning to biorefinery processes to maximize the recovery of the various components of marine and aquatic biomass with multi-sectoral approaches.” Within IAR, discussions are going well: for microalgae, on scaling up, reducing costs, opening up lower value-added markets; for macro-algae, on the possibility of creating large off-shore productions. In any case, the time is right for the expansion of this innovative sector which can contribute to global challenges: climate change and energy transition, food security and health for all, balanced regional development including the development of local economic activities and secure jobs.
1 La Joie de vivre, 1984
2 On the initiative of 4 clusters – Industrie and Agro-Ressources, Mer Bretagne, Mer PACA and Trimatec – Atlanpole BlueCluster, CEA-DSV and two industrials – Fermentalg and Veolia – joined by Roquette, EADS, Ifremer and CEVA (Centre d’Étude et de Valorisation des Algues).
3 The General Council of food, agriculture and rurals areas
4 Centre d’étude et de valorisation des algues
5 « Le développement de la bioéconomie bleue » 2019 (CGAAER), White paper « European Guidelines for a Sustainable Aquaculture of Seaweed, PEGASUS » 2019 (réseau PHYCOMORPH), Seaweed Manifesto 2020 (Lloyd’s Register Fondation)