Get latest insights direct to inbox


Micro Algae to Save the Day – A Promising Future of Sustainability

The world is facing an escalating climate crisis with greenhouse gas emissions soaring to unprecedented levels. This crisis is no longer a distant threat but a pressing global concern, demanding immediate and robust action from nations and organisations worldwide. Net-zero or carbon-negative goals have been set in an effort to reduce future emissions, but amidst these endeavors, lies a critical challenge – how to capture and sequester the most abundant climate change-causing greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), that has already been released into the atmosphere.

An unexpected but promising solution to this dilemma has emerged over the past few years; microalgae as a carbon sink. Microalgae is a type of biomass that contains tiny, photosynthetic organisms that have the potential to capture and store CO2. Their potential to function as a biological ‘carbon sink’ is drawing increasing attention from researchers and environmentalists, just as the need for a solution to the climate crisis has never been more paramount.

In the pursuit of sustainable solutions, two distinct entities have emerged as pioneers: the TNB Research (TNBR) Microalgae Research Project and the Algal Biotechnology Consortium (ABC), both actively exploring the potential of microalgae technology in mitigating climate change.

With Liyana bt. Yahya, Principal Researcher in Renewable Energy & Green Technology at TNBR and Dr. Pau-Loke Show, President of International Bioprocess Association Malaysia and Algae Biotechnology Consortium, Energy Watch explores the science behind microalgae’s carbon capture abilities, the pivotal role it can play in shaping our sustainable future in the face of the impending climate crisis and how the TNB Research (TNBR) Microalgae Research Project and the Algal Biotechnology Consortium are trying to shape our sustainable future in the face of a climate crisis.

TNBR – A Long-Time Investor in Microalgae’s Potential

Microalgae’s climate-mitigating potential has been part of Earth’s history for eons, but it is only in recent times that humans have begun harnessing and exploring this natural resource. Through the process of photosynthesis, microalgae capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, releasing oxygen in the process. This fundamental biological function has made microalgae vital players in the Earth’s carbon cycle, essentially acting as nature’s carbon sink.

Over the past decade, Malaysia’s national utility, Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) has been exploring the diverse potential of microalgae as a sustainable solution for a range of issues with their research arm, TNB Research (TNBR). As far back as 2011, TNBR launched the first of their Biological Carbon Capture and Utilisation (Bio-CCU) projects. According to Liyana bt. Yahya, Principal Researcher in Renewable Energy & Green Technology at TNBR, this includes carbon capture and reduction to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, the development of renewable energy sources through microalgae-based biofuel production and the production of high-value microalgal bioproducts. However, this road has not been without its challenges.

“Microalgae growth can be very sensitive to fluctuations in temperature, CO2 concentration, optimum nutrient media and other parameters, making it challenging to maintain consistent production of microalgae,” shares Liyana.  This issue, encountered by manufacturers in sectors like bio-fuel and nutrition where suboptimal algae quality impacts product efficiency, is a global concern.

“Since 2011, we have identified indigenous consortium microalgae species that are robust and have higher CO2 fixation rate abilities, which make them capable of efficiently capturing concentrated CO2 from power plants emission.”

These robust microalgae species and optimum operating parameters have led to higher growth rates, tolerance to harsh environmental conditions and enhancement of biomass productivity for valorisation (converting waste into more useful products) of downstream products, she explains.

Today, the end goal is to transition from research and development to commercial implementation within TNB’s operations. TNBR’s pilot system is the 1st Algae Bio-CCU technology in Malaysia tested with actual flue gas emission (gas that emanates from combustion plants).

Now, TNBR is looking into the techno-economic viability of the overall value chain to improve the economics of microalgae-based processes to address challenges related to scale, energy input, cost reduction, and integration with other industries. “With TNBR’s know-how and more than 10 years’ experience in this space, we believe that with strong industrial collaboration & government incentives, this technology can be key in helping Malaysia achieve its emissions reduction targets and transition towards a more environmentally-friendly energy landscape,” adds Liyana.

In fact, most experts in the space believe that collaboration across sectors and with government support will be key to unlocking the sustainable potential of microalgae. This very sentiment is what led to the establishment of the Algae Biotechnology Consortium (ABC), the world’s 1st algae consortium formed by University of Nottingham Malaysia.

Leading the World’s Algae Ambitions

Across the country, experts and academic institutions have been exploring the potential applications of microalgae in the sustainability space, whether for developing algae-based products, environmental remediation or bioenergy production. However, the majority of this research was being conducted independently, meaning many resources were being used for the same objectives. The Algal Biotechnology Consortium (ABC) was initiated to address this very issue and bring local efforts in microalgae research together, in a major leap forward for harnessing the potential of microalgae.

The goal, says Dr. Pau-Loke Show, President of International Bioprocess Association Malaysia and Algae Biotechnology Consortium, is to create a dedicated platform where researchers can access the latest information about microalgae while also fostering collaboration and collective algae technology advancement. This platform will serve as a hub for sharing knowledge, best practices, and fostering partnerships that can contribute to the consortium’s collective goals.

“Our primary mission is to cultivate a thriving community of algae researchers in Malaysia and to build a sustainable microalgae ecosystem,” he says. By pooling resources and expertise, the consortium seeks to drive innovation and research in the field of microalgae.

“In the initial phase, our primary objective will be to establish connections among researchers, organisations, and institutions involved in algae research across the nation,” explains Dr. Show. “Then we can begin to work on collaborative research projects encompassing the various facets of algae research from biotechnology and bioprocessing to environmental applications and sustainable resource utilisation”

Besides this, the consortium intends to facilitate effective knowledge-sharing through a centralised repository of information and a dedicated forum for discussions. “We want to ensure that valuable knowledge is readily accessible to all members.”

However, he explains, the technological challenges in microalgae research and development can be overcome by fostering a collaborative environment for researchers to drive innovation. The real challenge is what comes after, creating industries of scale that will allow microalgae solutions and products to take off.

“From a realistic view,” says Dr. Show, “it is very challenging for academic researchers to commercialise microalgae technology without the support from various organisations including research, government or industry. The fundamentals of algae cultivation, harvesting and extraction can be established, but funding for commercialisation into the market is still an issue.”

To counter this, the consortium will also be planning educational outreach programs to raise awareness about the significance of algae research. These efforts will include engagement with schools and universities to inspire the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs in the field of algae research.

Microalgae Applications in Action

Microalgae research projects are gaining significant attention worldwide for their potential to address environmental, energy, and economic challenges. These projects hold the promise of transforming microalgae into sustainable solutions for various sectors, such as transportation fuels, wastewater treatment, and the production of renewable alternatives to traditional petrochemical products.

Some of the benefits of microalgae are already being seen in real-life applications. In the European Union (EU), researchers have been producing microalgae in the drain water from greenhouses, allowing microalgae cultivators to cut their costs while cleaning farming water outputs and producing raw ingredients for the aquaculture industry. Nutrient-dense irrigation water from greenhouses can make wild plants and algae grow excessively, damaging water quality as fertilisers are washed into lakes and rivers.

By cultivating microalgae in the nutrient-dense drain water from these greenhouses, accumulation of these nutrients can be avoided and freshwater bodies can be kept clean. Besides this, microalgae cultivation can be a water-intensive process – one of the main challenges in wide scale production of it. European microalgae researchers, agricultural producers and technology experts connected the dots and created REALM: Reusing Effluents from Agriculture to unLock the potential of Microalgae.

REALM plans to join greenhouse farmers with microalgae producers in the most economical way. By having microalgae production facilities close to greenhouses, microalgae producers can have easy access to a source of water and nutrients, while waste from greenhouses can be transformed into valuable microalgae, which can be used in innovative products.

The potential of microalgae seems to be almost limitless. MATSURI (Microalgae Towards Sustainable & Resilient Industry), a cross-industry coalition of 35 East Asian corporate giants, including such industry dominant names as Fuji, Honda and Mitsubishi, was established to tap into that value. The goal – to establish and lead a new algae-centered industry, comprising food, feed, fuel and chemical sectors, that is estimated to be worth $320 billion annually by 2030. The group will also develop algae-derived products on a commercial scale, and are hoping to create enough demand for phytoplankton to make a large-scale algae farm viable right here in Malaysia. The farm is expected to use carbon dioxide from a local thermal power plant to grow the algae and produce up to 140,000 tons of microalgae a year.

While most MATSURI projects are focused on food and cosmetic ingredients, the big target is to find a cost-effective way to make algae-based auto and jet fuel.

Investing in Nature’s ‘Green Gold’

“Through large-scale cultivation, microalgae can capture and utilise carbon dioxide, especially from industries and agriculture, mitigating emissions at the source, making it a potent tool in combating climate change,” says TNBR’s Liyana. “Whether for biofuel production, wastewater treatment, creating high-value bioproducts, like pigments, fertilisers and pharmaceutical compounds – it seems like microalgae can do it all.”

“TNBR has been at work on this forover 10 years now, advancing microalgae research in the hopes of creating a more sustainable future,” says Liyana. “But to unlock the full benefits microalgae has to offer, we need collaborative efforts between the government, research institutions, and the private sectors, along with the development of supportive regulatory frameworks and policies,” she stresses.

On a large scale, microalgae may indeed be the answer to advancing Malaysia’s net-zero goals and addressing the global climate challenge. “When I first encountered microalgae, like most people, I primarily associated it with spirulina tablets, which many of us disliked to consume during our childhood,” shares Dr. Show. “I’ve come to realise that microalgae could be nature’s ‘green gold’. We researchers have realised that it holds tremendous potential across various applications including energy, alternative value-added food and environmental remediation application.”

“Now, it is time for action to unlock microalgae’s full potential.”

Subscribe to our newsletter today

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Latest insights,

straight to your inbox.

You’re In!

You’ve electrified your inbox.
Thank you for subscribing!