In Dr Dale McClure’s lab at the University of Sydney’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Perspex vats of microalgae bubble gently, a tantalising promise of new and sustainable ways to both raise food production and reduce pollution.
Dr McClure is working on ways to optimise both the growth and efficiency of specific strains of microalgae: naturally occurring organisms that produce small but vital elements of the food chain ranging from Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins such as Vitamin K1 – essential for blood coagulation – and food colourants, while metabolising nutrients that could be harmful if released into the broader environment.
One of Dr McClure’s focuses is on fish farming. Aquaculture now supplies more than 50 per cent of global fish consumption, significantly reducing the burden on fish in the wild, but it brings its own pollution problems.
“In the outside world, fish farm by-products like nitrogen and phosphates can lead to algal blooms,” Dr McClure says.
“Our research shows that by encouraging the right microalgae to grow under the right conditions, we can use them to remove some of the more damaging pollutants while producing key nutrients like Omega 3s that can be used to both encourage fish growth and provide health benefits for end consumers.”
Dr McClure has started working with commercial partners like Green Camel, a Sydney-based food company that has created a cycle using the waste water from fish farming to produce organically grown herbs for some of Australia’s largest supermarket chains, effectively making the waste stream from one process the feedstock for another.
Chitralekha Adhinarayanan, Green Camel’s Research & Development Manager, says that the prospect of inserting microalgae into the production loop is very positive: putting Omega 3 microalgae into the fish tanks reduces feed costs while maintaining their organic certification. There is also a less expected but no less beneficial spin-off.
“Our intention is to investigate the opportunities of utilising algae that are rich in Omega 3 to increase the growth rate of our fish. They seem to find it more palatable and put on weight faster, so there is a good business case for us,” says Ms Adhinarayanan.
As exciting as the fish farming experiment is, it is just the tip of the iceberg. The University of Sydney’s Centre for Excellence in Advanced Food Enginomics (CAFE), led by Professor Fariba Dehghani, is working on a number of initiatives to develop a safe, sustainable and competitive food supply.
Along with Dr McClure’s microalgae research, CAFE is looking at ways to transform orange peel waste to develop a supplement for cancer patients in remission, and printable food ink sensors designed to detect gases produced by bacteria as food deteriorates, potentially giving a much more accurate reading on the freshness of food, leading to less wastage and the fewer consequences of eating contaminated food.
“For me the whole point of doing the research is to have some kind of tangible benefit for society: it makes people healthier and cleans up the environment,” says Dr McClure. “We’ve barely scratched the surface.”