Food for thought

Is salmon on your Christmas menu?

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that are essential for health. The nutrients are required for a number of fundamental processes in the body such as controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain, and since our bodies cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, we must get them through our diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are also associated with many other health benefits, including protection against heart disease and possibly stroke, and reduction of inflammation.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. In the wild these fish obtain the omega-3 fatty acids from the marine algae on which they feed. Farmed fish are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. In aquaculture the fish obtain the omega-3 fatty acids from the feed they are given, which contains fish meal and oils from smaller oily fish like anchovies. However, dwindling wild fish stocks are impacting the availability of fish oils and increasing the price. Consequently less fish oil is being added into the fish feed. A recent study from Stirling University indicated that the amount of omega-3 in farmed salmon has fallen by half in the last 5 years (

As the demand for farmed salmon and other fish increases globally, finding alternative sources of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids is essential and attention is increasingly focusing on micro-algae. In the oceans, micro-algae are the primary producers of omega-3 fatty acids, along with other beneficial unsaturated long-chain fatty acids. Cultivation of fatty acid producing micro-algae for incorporation into farmed fish feed could reduce the demand for fish oils and fish meal from wild pelagic fish stocks and enhance the algal manufacturing industry. Denmark-based aquaculture feed company, BioMar, have already begun production of fish feed which includes omega-3 oils from micro-algae whereby increasing sustainability in the aquaculture market. BioMar feed is used in production of one fifth of the farmed fish in Europe and South and Central America. (

One area of focus of the ASLEE project is to examine the economic viability of using local renewable electricity for phototrophic cultivation of micro-algae, greatly reducing production costs. In a few years’ time your Christmas salmon might contain omega-3 fatty acids produced right here in Scotland. 

Energy Intermittency: Challenge and Opportunity

We live in an ever-changing world: the rotation of our planet, the effects of tides and the patterns of winds and rainfall means that each day tends to be different from the last. Human activity changes daily and over the seasons. This is reflected in variations in demand for energy at different time scales and the availability of energy also varies, crucially in the case of renewable energy. This leads to intermittency both in supply and demand for energy.

The ASLEE project aims to use the production of micro-algae to smooth out the intermittencies of supply and demand by providing demand side management that can be used to match the patterns of intermittency coming from other users and from energy production. Algae use light to provide energy that in turn is used to fix carbon dioxide and turn it into sugars by the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthetic bacteria, algae and higher plants evolved on a planet where natural light levels show considerable intermittencies, caused by the daily patterns of night and day, seasonality and cloud cover. Algae in polar regions can go months in near total darkness into periods where they experience light 24 hours a day. Algae are well adjusted to deal with these fluctuations in their primary energy source so there is good reason to believe that they will adjust to light intermittency when LED lighting is used for demand side management.

Of course, there is a potential cost: if algae do not receive light then respiration will deplete energy reserves and the algae will consume themselves and eventually starve but this is not a rapid process so the question is more one of productivity than survival: just how much can the amount of light given to algae be varied before production becomes economically ineffective? The answer to this also depends on the value of the use of the algae in demand side management, through allowing renewable projects to be undertaken that could not otherwise happen due to grid constraint or income streams that become available through grid balancing. These strictly economic questions are being modelled as part of the ASLEE project by the University of West Scotland but at Xanthella one of the tasks is to better understand the effects on the algae of the intermittency of light in the industrial production of algae.

For photosynthetic organisms like algae, light is energy and so we might expect that growth of the algae simply corresponds to the availability of light as a function of total energy where the other feedstocks (water, CO2 and nutrients) are not limiting. Thus algae that are given light over twenty four hours might be expected to grow at twice the rate of algae that are given the same light concentration but only over twelve hours, mimicking a natural day-night cycle. However, the situation is considerably more complex than this due to a process known as photoinhibition.


Photosynthesis occurs in the chloroplast in algae and higher plants. Light is captured at the thylakoid membranes and the energy used to produce NADPH and ATP which are in turn used to fuel the Calvin Cycle where CO2 is converted into sugars.   Photons are captured by molecular antennae in the thylakoid membranes but this process damages the antennae reducing their ability to capture more photons. At the same time cellular repair mechanisms are fixing this damage. As light intensities increase, more damage occurs until a point is reached where the repair mechanisms cannot keep up with the rate of damage and the overall rate of photosynthesis drops. This is photo-inhibition.

Complicating this further is the fact that individual micro-alga in a photobioreactor do not experience identical light levels except at low densities. As the culture increases in density, light penetrates less and less distance into the photobioreactor giving a gradient where the light levels can be quite different over a few centimetres. The algae are also not in fixed positions as the water within the photobioreactor is constantly circulating so that an individual micro-alga may be moving from very different concentrations of light every few seconds: moving from zones where they may be subjected to photo-inhibition then into areas where there is insufficient light to maintain photosynthesis and then into a “Goldilocks” zone where the light concentration is optimal for photosynthesis.

Increasing the light intensity in a photobioreactor will increase the zone within which photoinhibition might be expected to occur but it will also mean that there are fewer areas where light is insufficient for photosynthesis. Changing the light intensity will, therefore, not necessarily directly relate to growth of the algae and we can expect to find plateaus of photosynthetic activity over which adding more light will have little effect on increasing the amount of algae produced. Similarly, if we make the light intermittent so that there are dark periods this will allow the repair mechanisms to fix damage quicker than if they were exposed to constant light within the photobioreactor.

pbr-lightsXanthella are looking at the effects of both changing light intensity and changing the periodicity with which light is delivered to the algae. Initial results are very encouraging as to the potential of using light intermittency for demand side management of electricity use. A 15 hour illumination with 9 hour dark cycle was chosen as this matches the proposed availability of “free” electricity from the Ardnamurchan Estate biomass Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant which will run 24/7 but from which the electricity is only required during the working day. What we found was that there was no significant difference in either growth rate of biomass production over seven days when the light was given constantly or in a 15 hour light: 9 hour dark cycle. Increasing the amount of light given in the 15:9 cycle also had no significant effect.

The most efficient production was actually where light was given at the 15:9 condition without increasing the maximum of light to match the amount of light given over 24 hours under constant illumination. This suggests that there is significant photoinhibition occurring at the chosen light levels but the important finding is that we can manipulate light levels (and thus use of electricity) to a considerable extent but still achieve comparable results in terms of algal production.

We are now looking at other species and the effects of different patterns of intermittency including rapid changes in light illumination to mimic grid balancing activities

Visit the ASLEE stand at IBioIC’s 3rd Annual Conference – Delivering Impact

Thursday 26 & Friday 27 January 2017


January 2017 sees the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) host it’s third Annual Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which is set to showcase and exemplify IBioIC’s current and future activities; outline the Industrial Biotechnology (IB) landscape and opportunities in Scotland; whilst linking communities to forge future collaborations between industry and academia. Attracting over 300 bio-based professionals from across the UK, Europe and further afield, IBioIC is keen to place an emphasis on the trajectory of IB in Scotland, making it an attractive proposition for international investment.

‘Delivering Impact’ sets the theme for 2017 and will demonstrate the scale and breadth of activity of the sector and the opportunities available to accelerate the growth of the industry.

This is IBioIC’s biggest annual event with over fifty speakers spanning two days and delegates ranging  from high level business leaders, academics from across the UK and further afield, government representatives, and students who partake in our Skills Programme, making it is a very cost effective way to meet contacts old and new from the IB industry. Other highlights from the conference will include poster sessions, exhibition and sponsorship opportunities and of course, our networking dinner on the evening of day one. We look forward to welcoming delegates to the event.

The near final programme is available online and registration is open now:

Join the conversation and follow us on Twitter: #IBioIC17 @IBioIC



How algae can balance the electricity grid

The modern electricity grid is one of the engineering marvels of the world. The key challenge facing this modern marvel is that generation must equal load, at all times and in all places on the grid. Scotland’s electricity system is challenged by two factors:

  1. A distribution gird that was built up over the years to serve a relatively small and dispersed population;
  2. A vast renewable energy resource that generates intermittent electricity, and could generate much more.

Together these two factors create a problem that prevents Scotland, and especially the Highlands and Islands, from realising its full energy potential.

Most electric loads are not very flexible with respect to when they turn on and off: for instance would you want to wait for your cuppa until the sun is shining? How about only watching the telly when the wind is blowing?  Fortunately, there are some loads that can be flexible about when they use energy off the grid, and the production of algae is one of them. Algae need light to live, but they are inherently capable of growing and thriving with an intermittent source of light. And they produce a huge variety of valuable compounds, from biofuel or high-protein feed, to high value pigments and Omega -3 oils.


The ASLEE project aims to marry an understanding of:

  1. The value of flexible load on the grid with;
  2. The effects of the intermittent light supply on algae growth.

We aim to demonstrate that a flexible load can use Scotland’s intermittent generation to produce valuable products, and help solve the region’s renewable energy challenge. VCharge technology will be used to manage the intermittency of the energy being put into the algal photo-bioreactors and to monetise this flexibility on the Scottish grid. The company has been providing grid balancing services to grids in North America for five years, and has developed close relationships with National Grid and Scottish and Southern Energy Power Distribution (SSEPD) that will enable the project to develop novel and lucrative approaches to energy use.

Scottish Resources Conference 2016

ASLEE partner representatives were delighted to be invited to exhibit at the Scottish Resources Conference 2016, in Edinburgh, hosted by Zero Waste Scotland. The conference provided an excellent opportunity to showcase the ASLEE project and to discuss the Scottish Government’s circular economy targets with world leading experts in sustainability and resource management.

A regional funding call, under the Circular Economy Investment Fund, was announced by Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change, Environment and Land Reform Roseanna Cunningham MSP. The enterprise funding is in place to encourage small or medium sized businesses (SMEs) in developing innovative ideas that demonstrate sustainability and waste reduction. Building from a successful pilot scheme, the new funding is aimed at accelerating a Circular Economy in Scotland.


The ASLEE project is a perfect example of the circular economy as it uses resources that would otherwise be wasted (surplus renewable electricity, and potentially, waste nutrient streams and carbon dioxide gas), to create new products that enhance the value of existing industrial activities. Initially, the ASLEE project will use surplus electricity, from a Combined Heat and Power plant at Ardnamurchan, to grow micro-algae for use as aquaculture feeds. The micro-algal product will displace imported micro-algae whilst enabling the Ardnamurchan estate to overcome the problems of grid constraints and pave the way for further renewable energy developments in the future.

In addition to announcing the enterprise funding, Scottish Cabinet Minister Roseanna Cunningham took time out to chat to delegates, including ASLEE project lead partner Dr Douglas McKenzie and colleagues from Xanthella and ALIenergy.


Ideally located algal expertise: Ardtoe, FAI Aquaculture

Ardtoe aquaculture facility

FAI Aquaculture Ardtoe Marine Research Facility is a long-established and internationally recognised facility providing both expertise on algal culturing and use of algae as feedstocks in aquaculture. Of particular relevance to the ASLEE project is the experience of largescale commercial culture of a wide range of microalgae species used within fish and shellfish hatcheries, employing a variety of culture systems.

Using the renewable energy generated locally, the ASLEE project aims to expand the algal culturing capabilities with cost-effective production of live algae.  This would bring significant benefits both to the company and to the UK shellfish industry as a whole.  

In addition, being based on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, the marine laboratory is ideally located to the ASLEE project demonstrator site to be built in 2017.  The facility will be a potential end user of the microalgal products, both locally and more widely through its parent company, Benchmark Holdings, which has a number of other facilities that are significant users of algae.


Empowering Rural Industries Conference – 20th March 2017

Hosted by the ASLEE project, ‘Empowering Rural Industries’ is a showcase event uniting the energy sector with innovative manufacturing and traditional rural commerce. The one day conference on March 20th 2017 will provide opportunities to engage with experts from energy suppliers, aquaculture, distilleries, government agencies and academic institutes. Sessions will highlight the integrated nature of the rural economy and how innovation can realise the potential energy resource to build sustainability, community resilience and contribute towards the circular economy.


In the coming weeks looks out for news on how to register and join us for an engaging day of interactive presentations and networking opportunities!



Algae in Industry


So why grow algae?

Micro-algae comprise a vast group of phototrophic, unicellular organisms with an immense range of genetic diversity. They can be cultivated under a range of conditions, meaning they can grow in often difficult agro-climatic environments. In addition, they exhibit rapid growth rates and as a result of the tremendous metabolic diversity are a resource for a wide spectrum of bio-based applications and bioactive molecules.

There is great commercial value in algal products. Current markets include speciality products and neutraceuticals, including pigments, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, vitamins and whole algae as a health food item or for inclusion in cosmetic preparations. Due to demand exceeding supply a Norwegian health product company has recently made a substantial investment in the production of natural astaxanthin from micro-algae. The high quality product is produced by Icelandic based Algalif AS with support from Iceland’s minister for industries and innovation ––media/news/invest/microalgae-production/212

Other signidsc_8490ficant areas are production of high protein algal biomass, replacement of fishmeal in aquaculture or agricultural feed, and production of material for anaerobic digestion and bioenergy. The algal production company Cynotech, based in Hawaii, has been cultivating Spirulina pacifica for many years. The microscopic blue-green alga is an excellent source of easily absorbed, high quality protein combined with other valuable biomolecules. Cynotech net sales for 2016 financial year was USD 31,568,000 –

The increasing aquaculture market is particularly pertinent for the ASLEE project. In aquaculture systems, micro-algae can be used directly to nourish larvae, for example for shrimp or bivalve shellfish, alternatively it can be given indirectly via zooplankton to hatchery fish. 

“Future for industry is green”


ASLEE 1st Quarter Progress Meeting

ASLEE partners


The ASLEE first quarter project meeting took place last week in glorious sunshine.

The one day event attended by representatives from the project partners was hosted by Xanthella at the European Marine Science Park in Dunstaffnage, near Oban.

It was a fantastic day of technical discussions and updates from the attendees. The meeting was also an opportunity to review and plan the next stage of the ASLEE project development.

ASLEE and the Circular Economy



The circular ecfarmed seafoodsonomy is a generic term for an economic framework that is a closed system, based on complex natural cycles and systems, ultimately depleting no natural resources and producing no waste or pollution – in contrast to a linear economy, which is a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production.

In a circular economy, energy sources and raw materials are renewable, and ‘wastes’ are recycled sustainably and indefinitely back into the system. Transition to a circular economy is essential to secure a viable and sustainable future on a planet of finite resources.

The ASLEE Project has the potential to contribute significantly towards the circular economy. Producing algae in photobioreactors using renewable energy requires four main inputs: electricity, water, nutrients and carbon dioxide. All of these can be easily sourced within a sustainable circular economic model.

The algal products have many potential uses (including pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and biofuels) but initially, will replace imported feedstocks from abroad for the local aquaculture industry – increasing the sustainability of locally farmed seafoods.