Algae are the reason we can live on this planet

Greenhouse gases, which include CO2, have caused climate change—a major issue that must be tackled by all of society. Compared with 1950, the average global temperature has risen by 1°C or more, causing severe effects on ecosystems. According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a 1 to 3 degrees rise in temperature creates the risk of extinction for 20 to 30 percent of all organisms on earth.

However, looking back at the history of our planet, the earth faced much harsher circumstances at the time of its birth: greenhouse gases filled the atmosphere, with no oxygen. The atmospheric temperature was constantly above 100°C, making it extremely inhospitable to life. However, saviors of the planet appeared and transformed the earth into a place where we could all live. Those heroes were microalgae.

Approximately 2.5 billion years ago, blue-green algae—which, strictly speaking, are known in scientific terms as cyanobacteria—first appeared in the planet’s primeval oceans. These algae possessed the ability to produce the earth’s first oxygen via photosynthesis, and as they multiplied in the oceans they filled the water with oxygen, leading to the eventual creation of a breathable atmosphere above as well. In other words, blue-green algae created the oxygen on which so many living things depend and transformed the planet into a livable place rich with greenery.

But that’s not all. When blue-green algae die, their remains are deposited as sediment and, over countless years, are transformed into petroleum. So, in addition to creating a livable environment on earth, they have also provided us with an invaluable source of energy.

Today, these little heroes from 2.5 billion years ago are once again becoming the focus of attention as potential saviors of the planet.

Helping to solve the food crisis and serving as a clean energy source

The energy locked away inside microalgae can serve as an excellent source of nutrition for humans and other living creatures. They are chock-full of protein, fats, minerals and other basic nutrients, and many of them are also useful as functional food ingredients thanks to their germicidal capabilities. This presents numerous potential applications, including food products and supplements for humans, as well as food for cattle, fisheries and more.

In addition, microalgae have the ability to store oil inside their bodies and convert it into biofuel that can be used in diesel engines and other such equipment. Furthermore, as the algae grow they absorb CO2 ten times as efficiently as trees. Thus, algae can be cultivated for biofuel while absorbing CO2 emissions from industrial facilities, helping us to produce clean energy efficiently with minimal environmental impact.

With their potential as an excellent source of nutrition and as a cleaner alternative fuel source, microalgae show immense promise. However, to ensure their use throughout society, reliable mass production of the algae at low cost is key.

In practice, it is necessary to keep production costs per liter of algae solution down to several hundred yen, and a lot of technological hurdles remain to be overcome to achieve this. It will also be necessary to set up supply chains, make consistent with national government policies, and take care of other such details. However, successfully overcoming all of these challenges will put us on the path toward a more sustainable world for everyone. That’s why DENSO Corporation has taken on the challenge of the mass production and application of microalgae for the sake of our future.

Finding the best possible alga

DENSO’s first encounter with algae occurred in 2007. At the time, companies were not so interested in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but DENSO had already sensed that a crisis was coming.

DENSO felt that it was time for the manufacturing industry to make some changes. We couldn’t keep the same systems and continue to emit CO2 as we had been. As we revised our manufacturing processes with the goal of carbon neutrality, we explored various eco-friendly energy sources including biofuels, and that’s when we first encountered algae.

We had long focused on the auto industry and so knew nothing about these algae. We felt that there were so many things we didn’t yet know, so we decided to find experts we could work with, and embarked on a joint research project together with Kyoto University.

The project team’s first endeavor was to identify a type of alga that could be cultivated easily in any environment, and was also very tough and durable. Eventually they discovered a previously unknown type of green microalga called Coccomyxa sp. KJ. Surprisingly, this alga was found in a hot spring region, where its resilience allowed it to survive in hot, highly acidic water.

In other words, it was exactly the kind of tough alga the team was looking for. In addition to its ability to survive in harsh environments, this strain offered other potential advantages as well. Kinya Atsumi, a leader in biotechnology development at DENSO and one of the project’s founding members, explained, “The discovery of this alga made the future of our project much more promising.”

“One of the most important advantages of Coccomyxa sp. KJ was its ability to grow quickly and in a durable manner. Compared with other algae we had encountered, this type was far easier to mass-produce.*1 Moreover, it exhibited excellent functionality as a nutritional component: Coccomyxa sp. KJ includes an impressive 62 different types of nutrient—far more than other algae—including GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid] which helps to reduce mental stress, ALA [alpha-linolenic acid] which can potentially suppress allergic reactions and prevent blood clots, and other ingredients that make the alga highly useful in functional food products.”

— Atsumi

*1 A project outsourced and supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), and conducted in collaboration with Kyoto University Professor Hideaki Miyashita and his research laboratory.

In addition to being used for energy, this strain’s other advantages offer simple practical applications. With high hopes for mass-producing Coccomyxa sp. KJ, the project team decided on two main approaches. The first was making genetic improvements to the strain to boost biofuel production, and so DENSO set up a cutting-edge research environment inside their laboratory and began to modify the Coccomyxa sp. KJ genome.

“Under normal circumstances, each alga holds an amount of oil [that can be used as fuel] equivalent to approximately 30 percent of its dry weight, and this was boosted to roughly 60 percent by our genome modification. Our research efforts greatly increased fuel productivity.”*2

— Atsumi

*2 Carried out based on the results of a project outsourced by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), and conducted in collaboration with Chuo University Professor Shigeaki Harayama and his research laboratory.

The team’s second approach was the construction of a large cultivation facility for mass production. They used an abandoned school building in Amakusa City, Kumamoto Prefecture, which provided an ideal outdoor cultivation environment thanks to the many hours of sunlight it received each day. The team’s choice of outdoor production meant that, unlike indoor cultivation, no electricity was needed for lighting, which reduced the environmental impact. However, because daylight hours varied with the day and weather, volume of production was unstable and hard to predict.

According to Hitoshi Kuno, a leader in biotechnology business at DENSO, the Company has unique perspectives and technological capabilities that make it possible to overcome this instability of production.

“We approach algaculture as an industrial process, managing it like a production line. This means determining the variables that affect cultivation in each stage of production, calculating and clearly quantifying the range of acceptable performance required to achieve production success, and utilizing these to build a framework for stable production regardless of the weather. We’ve leveraged many of our mass production and quality control technologies developed through automobile components production to achieve these things, and by perfecting the framework for alga production that is unaffected by weather we expect to enable algaculture production facilities to be built anywhere around the world.”

— Kuno

Algae in everyday life: pursuing mass production and useful applications

While endeavoring to stabilize and improve the efficiency of Coccomyxa sp. KJ production, the project members have been working to expand applications of this alga. These efforts are split into three phases, focused on the three application categories of food, feed and fuel.

“Our first phase of production operations centers on food products for human consumption. Coccomyxa sp. KJ offers so many potential benefits that it could even be called a ‘superfood.’ By utilizing its diverse nutrients to create food products with high added value, we can raise awareness of this alga and the benefits it provides while also using this phase as a preparatory stage for mass production. Through joint research with Euglena Co., Ltd., we verified this alga’s functions in relation to oral care and developed and commercialized the supplement ‘Coccomyxa no Chikara.’

The second production phase relates to animal feed. When stable mass production at low cost becomes possible, we would like to focus on this applications. With the global population continuing to grow, increasing amounts of corn, soybeans and other crops will be used as the base ingredient for animal feed. However, we can collect alga remains generated as a byproduct of biofuel production and use it as an alternative feed ingredient, which will also bring down the price of biofuel if done correctly.

Finally, the third phase centers on biofuel, which is our true future goal. By supplying environmentally friendly biofuel in a stable manner, we can move one step closer to achieving carbon neutrality in society.”

— Atsumi

Coccomyxa sp. KJ is an impressive alga with huge potential, but DENSO does not have enough technologies and knowledge to make full use of functions and advantages of this alga in diverse fields and to pursue a wide array of business opportunities. We must work together with many joint developers and other partners—and share the benefits—in order to make this alga an everyday presence in our world at the earliest possible date.

“By making full use of technologies cultivated here at DENSO, we hope to use these algae to save our planet once again. Most people think of DENSO as just an automotive company, but through this algaculture project we hope to become more widely known as a worldwide leader in efforts to solve problems related to global warming, energy supplies and other such issues. We are determined to succeed with this project.”

— Kuno

Toward a well-being future for people and the planet

Microalgae are microscopic life-forms with a diameter of about 0.005 millimeter and impossible to see with the naked eye. Yet thanks to their hard work across a vast planet with a diameter of 12,742 kilometers (7,918 miles), we are able to live here. DENSO believes that by harnessing the combined strengths of these microorganisms, it will be possible to slow climate change and move toward widespread carbon neutrality. With this in mind, DENSO will continue utilizing its many technologies in biotechnology business for mass-producing algae.