BOB DOUGLAS An algal industry ready to bloom

Aug 17, 2017

A high level Roundtable held in Canberra in November 2017 concluded that  algal technology can help to  protect the Great Barrier Reef and create new jobs and growth  for regional areas.

Australian regional economies and the environment can be the winners from expansion of a now proven technology that converts nutrient pollution from industry and municipal water treatment into valuable algae biomass.

A report launched this week at Parliament House in Canberra, predicts that algal farming will grow into a major new industry that could help to rebuild Australian regional economies.   The report, “Opportunities for an expanded algal industry in Australia”, resulted from a roundtable discussion by a diverse group of scientists, entrepreneurs, experienced government policymakers and futurists. They met in November 2016 to examine the current state of activities, expectations and the possibilities that  micro-algae and macro-algae (seaweed) could make to Australia’s future.

The report describes the current scaling-up of pilot algal farming projects in river estuaries on the North  Queensland coast  In addition to providing a water remediation service to aquaculture, the company plans to partner with Councils along the Queensland coast to treat municipal waste-water more effectively.

The Great Barrier Reef is under assault not only from global warming,  but also from nutrient runoff into coastal rivers. Algal  farming can clean up polluted water at the same time as providing a host of valuable medicinal and nutrient by-products from the biomass that results.  This is already creating new jobs in some regional areas.

High hopes for the contribution that algal farming could make to the Australian economy have been held for the past 30 years and although there has been some hype in these earlier expectations, recent experience around the world as well as in Australia, now indicates that an algal industry that is carefully built on evidence and market success, will contribute positively to Australia’s future.

Much of the effort in the past has focused on the potential for algae to be used in the manufacture of biofuels, which, while technically feasible, is not currently economically practical.  But it still offers a possible backup approach to Australia’s currently vulnerable liquid fuel situation.

Algae products are also being used as feedstock for the aquaculture industry. Where large amounts of biomass are produced the proteins can also be used as feedstock for sheep, cattle and humans .

For an algal industry to prosper in Australia it must be solving problems. The problem above all others facing the world is a changing climate and the effect that this will have on food production for a still growing global population. Protein markets will expand at a time when land-based agriculture efforts are hampered by increasing temperatures. An advantage of algal farming will be that it will be less negatively affected by rising temperatures. A real strength which this industry offers is its ability to make use of brackish or salt water and to use land that is not suitable for other crops. A number of regional areas in Australia offer this combination together with appropriate sunlight and nutrient rich waste from other activities.

Not only is Australia richly endowed with sunlight, land, pollutant rich water and multiple species of micro and macro algae, but the experience of several companies, and the Australian community of phycologists, is now available to advance thinking and planning for the role that these organisms can play in the context of a challenging economic and environmental future.

The expert group recognised that these activities need improved coordination and a coherent roadmap, that can be supported by the existing companies and scientists as well as enabling broader understanding in the community and in government agencies. The group agreed that in order to realise the national potential from algal farming, the industry must work more closely together and with governments at all levels.

At the launch of the report in Parliament House, attended by the Greens and Labor Party spokespeople on agriculture and regional development, as well as by representatives of the algal industry and scientific community, there was a clear recognition by all parties that this is a field now ready for expansion, that could contribute significantly both to jobs and growth.

Bob Douglas is a retired epidemiologist and Director of Australia21 which convened the Roundtable and published the report which is available from its website, 

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