The future is deep green

Professor Peter Ralph with a student and the Living Lights display

Photo: Professor Peter Ralph with a student creating the Living Lights display

For many, the word algae conjures up images of green slime taking over their fish tank or backyard water feature. But relatively few are aware that this prolific microorganism offers a compelling solution to our planet’s resource exhaustion challenges.

“There are six million barrels of oil a day used for making plastics; we could, in principle, replace all of that and leave the oil in the ground,” explains Professor Peter Ralph, Director of the Climate Change Cluster (C3) and founder of the UTS Deep Green Biotech Hub (DGBH).

“You can use algae to make cosmetics, plastics, livestock feed, human food, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals — the number of industries that algae can be used as a raw material for is virtually as wide as your imagination,” he adds.

Algae is one of the world’s most diverse organisms and is an essential component of the aquatic ecosystem, providing food and oxygen for marine life forms. Microalgae — found in rivers, dams, lakes, waterways and oceans — strips carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and is responsible for the production of around 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe.

It’s the biochemical structure of this microalgae that can be manipulated for use in a huge variety of products and processes, that has captured the attention of researchers.

Living Lights display at Vivid Sydney“The breadth of biochemistry in the cells allows us to make virtually any product. We’ve got 300,000 species of algae — all with different cellular biochemistries — resulting in lipids, metabolites, proteins and other compounds that can be offered as a sustainable supply of raw materials. They’re essentially little biofactories; we can grow them very simply and easily, and produce a wide range of sustainable products.”

Algae can cost–effectively help ensure food security for humans and animals, generate oxygen and energy in buildings and replace petroleum in a host of manufacturing uses. It can be used in foods and medicines, as well as in the production of industrial enzymes and alternative oils and fuels. And it is endlessly renewable.

“We’re also working with algae for waste remediation — both in terms of creating new products from the waste generated in food production and the remediation of toxic industrial waste — and stripping the carbon dioxide out of the emissions that companies produce during manufacturing. There are half a dozen or so other industries where we see great potential, and we’re producing proof of concept data sets so that when those industries come to us, we’re able to demonstrate what we can do for them.”

Ralph says that algae could hold the key to addressing the challenges of an overpopulated world, which will be home to an estimated nine billion people by 2050.

“If we don’t have alternate sources of protein to feed people, alternate sources of energy and reduced consumption of water while also reducing our carbon dioxide emissions, we simply won’t be able to sustain our society.”

Established in July 2016, DGBH is a groundbreaking collaborative research hub led by UTS with the aim of developing commercial opportunities for the creation of a NSW algae–based biotechnology industry. The $18–million program brings together researchers and students from 11 universities across the state to work in tandem with the CSIRO, businesses and industries.

“If Australia doesn’t have an algal bioeconomy in the next two to three years, we’re going to miss the boat and the massive employment opportunities it will create,” explains Ralph.

“We need to transition industries in Australia from being reliant on fossil–based and raw materials to embracing sustainable raw materials, and algae represents a very large opportunity to establish a bioeconomy to lead that transition.”

“You can use algae to make cosmetics, plastics, livestock feed, human food, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals — the number of industries that algae can be used as a raw material for is virtually as wide as your imagination.”
– Professor Peter Ralph

DGBH acts as an accelerator, leveraging UTS’s commitment to fostering creative entrepreneurship through programs such as the Hatchery and Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation. Science, engineering and industry unite — with the potential to foster a wealth of startups and new industry avenues, and thrust both the state and the nation into the global spotlight in sustainability innovation.

Critically, the DGBH ecosystem enables the rapid identification of commercial opportunities and the resolution of manufacturing roadblocks to develop pilot products and services for market, fast–tracking the algal bioeconomy through its Green Light accelerator program.

“Our approach is unique, it’s more than just an accelerator program where you have a group of people with clever ideas developing opportunities. The university has invested in a wide range of pilot–scale technologies, and entrepreneurs interested in producing a product using microalgae can engage directly with these technologies and with our researchers on site.”

The initiative is set to become a key player in strengthening UTS’s reputation for working in partnership with industry to solve real–world challenges.

“The hub acts a conduit that brings problems to the university, rather than us developing solutions we think industry might need. It’s a powerful tool for engagement that offers a new way of translating our science.”

The hub has the backing of the NSW Government, and was awarded a $1 million Department of Industry grant in 2016 to support its establishment, injecting a further $500,000 in 2017. Extensive industry funding through research contracts supports UTS’s own substantial investment.

Earlier this year, DGHB took algae to the masses, literally shining a light on its potential as part of Vivid Sydney. The Living Lights installation (see page 6) saw the creation of an illuminated algal forest on the city’s foreshore, comprising 18 tubes of up to two–and–a–half metres in height filled with three different strains of algae. Visitors drawn to the energy and beauty of the interactive display left with a new appreciation for how this little–known organism could shape a more sustainable future.

“To get the message to the broader public, we need new and innovative ways of communicating,” says Ralph. “We’re effectively bringing the public to us by making the algal bioeconomy accessible, engaging with them and exposing them to those ideas on what the sustainable future could look like.”

Story by Jenifer Waters