Business

Local Algae May Prove Key to Slashing Livestock Methane Emissions

January 12, 2021, 2:11 PM HST
* Updated January 12, 2:15 PM
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An aerial view of the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority at Kona’s Keahole Point. DBEDT photo.

A tiny lab situated on the Kona Coast could hold the key to naturally reducing massive methane emissions from livestock around the world.

Symbrosia Inc. is a five-person startup studying the utility of a local species of red seaweed (asparagopsis taxiformis) that has, in early research, shown the potential to reduce methane emissions by up to 90% when added to cattle feed. Methane is considered one of the most harmful greenhouse gasses, contributing significantly to global climate change.

While emission projections vary, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that livestock are responsible for 14% of greenhouse emissions linked to human activity. The Oxford Journal of Animal Science states that the average ruminant (cow, sheep, or the like) can produce up to 500 liters of methane daily, adding that cattle emissions are projected to be responsible for upwards of 2% of global warming that may occur in the next 50 to 100 years.

“We are working to commercialize this opportunity to reduce methane as a solution for climate change,” said Alexia Akbay, CEO and cofounder of Symbrosia. “Then, a number of people would have to start working on the primary and applied research involved in getting these (seaweed) species to market, so that’s what we’re here doing.”

The inspiration for Akbay’s company actually began in Australia, where researchers profiled seaweeds that helped with the natural reduction of methane production in livestock. Cattle have four chambers in their stomachs, which ferment hard-to-digest materials like grass and hay. Methane is produced in the process, which is most frequently belched out by the animals into the atmosphere.

Symbrosia Research Scientist, Daisy, inducing seaweed reproduction. PC: Alexia Akbay

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In the simplest terms, methane’s atomic structure consists of one carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms. All four hydrogens must attach to the carbon to result in the production of methane. The red seaweed Symbrosia studies harbors a natural defense mechanism against predators, which produces a molecule that inhibits the ability of hydrogen to attach to carbon.

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It is this characteristic that could turn the seaweed into one of the most effective natural methane/climate change combatants on the planet. The algae will not replace any ingredients in cattle feed. Instead, it would serve merely as an additive sprinkled atop what’s already being fed to livestock, making its application practical on a wide scale.

While researchers have taken up studying the topic, Akbay said no one has ever really grown the seaweed anywhere.

Enter Symbrosia.

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The company is located at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i Authority, or NELHA, also known as the Hawai‘i Ocean Science and Technology Park, or HOST. The early days of the startup were spent in Connecticut where Akbay and her fellow Yale University alumni, Jonathan Simonds, first began collaborating on the idea with a small grant to pay for initial prototyping.

Soon, ocean research became necessary. Symbrosia connected with the HATCH Accelerator Program in Hawai‘i, which works in the sustainable aquaculture space to sponsor emerging startups by providing cash, capital, mentorship, and networking. HATCH funds 10-12 companies annually and Symbrosia became part of the 2019 cohort, relocating to the Big Island to take advantage of NELHA’s deep seawater pumping technology.

The facilities available at NELHA allow the company to “…control temperature, and to some extent nutrients, in our cultures,” said Simonds, who serves as Symbrosia’s Chief Technology Officer. “Being in a place we can access the seaweed and these resources is excellent.”

The cultures begin in a petri dish, sometimes so small a microscope is required to observe them.

“We start from just a couple cells of wild harvested material and grow them up,” Simonds continued. “We’re trying to figure out what makes it happy, what makes it grow. At the small scale, we’re able to do a lot of different tests.”

Different insects may be partial to the final product, which also could be susceptible to certain diseases — all possibilities the Symbrosia team must consider and navigate before achieving the goal of producing the red seaweed at scale.

Asparagopsis taxiformis growing outdoors at NELHA. PC: Alexia Akbay

As samples grow, more conditional experimentation is undertaken. Eventually, the material reaches a size at which it can be examined in larger systems, such as those that utilize photobioreactors and can test how to use the deep seawater technology at NELHA most effectively. Other novel technologies can be tested further using these systems, as well.

Akbay said there is a farm near the research park that was formerly used to produce algae but is not currently utilized. Symbrosia plans to lease the facility in February and retrofit it for production of its seaweed. Setting up ponds there, or at a similar site, is a crucial element to the company achieving its ultimate goal.

“Most of the work here is still research and development to make sure we can produce the crop at scale,” Akbay said. “It is already kind of a recognized solution. I think a lot of companies are just waiting on startups in the space or scientists to give everyone the greenlight and say, ‘Hey, this is going to be possible … doing it sustainably and doing it effectively.'”

Producing at scale for Symbrosia means rendering the process economically viable for the company’s own sustainability. The research and development it is currently engaged in could eventually be shared with other companies.

“It would be really difficult for us to produce all that seaweed,” Akbay explained. “If we share learning and license systems and technologies, we create a business model that could be replicated. That would be the goal.”

Symbrosia has already conducted one product trial with sheep at an organic farm in New York state during the summer of 2020, which Akbay said produced positive results.

She added she envisions large feed companies as customers and partners rather than competitors.

“The landscape is changing, and companies are setting climate-based targets of reducing supply chain emissions,” Akbay said. “McDonald’s and Ben and Jerry’s have identified feed additives as one of the methods to achieve this.”

Akbay and Simonds are hopeful to link up with multiple farms for further trials in the coming months. They are currently looking at a cattle farm in Seattle and searching for a dairy farm with which to partner in Hawai‘i.

“That will help us with product testing by learning more from farmers about how seaweed should be integrated in current systems,” Akbay explained. “We will work on getting small amounts out, getting feedback, then incorporating that into our process.”

“Maybe, in 2021, you could buy some cheese from a Hawaiian Dairy that had seaweed in its feed,” she added.

Symbrosia is also an avenue for economic expansion on the Big Island outside of the dominant tourism industry and into the coveted field of STEM job creation. The company projects that if events break correctly, it could be employing upwards of 30 people in such positions within the next five years.

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