Converting Beer’s Byproducts to Health Products
Like power plants, trucks and cars, breweries are part of the pollution problem. Every year, U.S. breweries emit more than 1.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide during fermentation, equivalent to all the motor-vehicle emissions in West Virginia. Now, at least one research company is trying to put those emissions to good work, with a healthy byproduct.
Daniel Higgs, CEO and co-founder of Boom Algae in Boulder, Colorado, wants to use beer, specifically the brewing process’s waste, to grow algae, and in turn extract health supplements—vegan omega-3 oils—from the organisms.
Higgs lives in Colorado, a state with over 200 breweries, so when Higgs needed a clean source of carbon dioxide to produce his omega-3s, he turned to brewers. “We went door-to-door knocking on local breweries,” he says.
Higgs and Phil Calabrese, another co-founder and the chief technology officer of Boom Algae, formerly Superior Ecotech, pitched their idea to Boulder’s Upslope Brewing Co. At first, Upslope founder Matt Cutter said he only had 10 minutes to listen to their pitch, but after an hour, Higgs and Calabrese secured a partner in Upslope. “Initially, I thought it was wacky,” Cutter says. ‘“You’re doing what with what?”’
Now, they are working together to finalize plans for their omega-3-producing algae greenhouse. They enlisted Boulder manufacturer Synergistic Building Technologies to make their greenhouse more efficient and more attractive, too, so Upslope can secure building permits from the city. Upslope is also engineering a way to route excess carbon dioxide from its fermenter to the greenhouse that will be attached to the side of the building. They hope to begin construction this December.
The idea sounds crazy. It takes beer’s byproduct to produce algae and then harvests dietary supplements from the pond scum. But logical thinking led Higgs and his colleagues to develop the technology. Two years ago, Higgs, a chemistry Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, took an interest in business. He wanted to enter a university business plan competition, but didn’t have any ideas. So Higgs connected with a research group at Iowa State University. The group was studying how to grow algae for fuels and health supplements more efficiently. Higgs wanted a profitable business, so Boom Algae is focusing on an algae strain rich in omega-3 oils for now. The market price for a kilogram of algae biofuel stands at about $1; the market price for a kilogram of algae omega-3 oil is around $140.
“We approached algae first from an economic standpoint. How can we make an economically sustainable company that is environmentally sustainable, too?” Higgs says.
Judges at business competitions from Texas to New York believe in Boom Algae. From the dozen or so competitions it has entered, the company has won $213,000. Once it constructs it greenhouse and it proves itself outside the lab, it hopes to attract funding from corporate sponsors and angel investors to install algae growth chambers at other breweries. “It’d be awesome if you could visit breweries all over the world that have these greenhouses that are consuming the carbon dioxide that they are emitting from their fermenters,” Cutter says.
Boom Algae intends to sell the omega-3 oils they produce to companies that will fortify food with them. Boulder Brands, the parent company of Earth Balance, Smart Balance, Udi’s and others, has agreed to buy omega-3s from Boom Algae.
Numerous studies suggest omega-3 oils lower the risk of heart disease and curb arthritis pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. The traditional source for these fats—fish or their oils—is not vegetarian. In addition, as oceans become more polluted, so do the fish.
A 2013 study by the Biodiversity Research Institute found that 84 percent of the world’s fish tested were not safe to eat more than once a month. Around the world, companies want to find alternative sources of omega-3 oils, and many are turning to algae. Most companies produce omega-3 oils by feeding algae strains sugar. BioProcess Algae relies on sunlight and carbon dioxide waste to make its omega-3s, like Boom Algae intends to do.
However, BioProcess Algae uses emissions from an Iowa ethanol plant for its algae production. Boom Algae’s intentions to rely on a brewery set it apart. Once the company constructs and tests its greenhouse alongside Upslope, it will learn whether this decision was a good one. “We need to prove it works next to the brewery with the brewer’s carbon dioxide,” Higgs says. “We’re confident, but we need the data to support it.”
The founders Calabrese and Higgs think it will do more than just cut carbon dioxide emissions at a local brewery. They believe it will make algae production for food and fuel profitable and sustainable. They plan to grow the algae in a more solid form to skip an energy-draining dewatering process. The greenhouse will use a conveyor belt to maximize the amount of algae produced in each square foot and thin films coating the chambers will target and filter light to speed the growth, too. “It solves a lot of technical challenges in growing algae, like amount of land needed, and water and energy usage,” Calabrese says.
A Midwest native, Rose Conry writes about inspiring adventures and new ideas.