A team of scientists has developed a method to effectively produce and extract plant-based oil from common microalgae that they claim could be a healthier and greener alternative to palm oil.
Led by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, the scientists say they have produced an edible oil with superior properties to those found in palm oil.
The microbial oil contains more polyunsaturated fatty acids than palm, which can help reduce harmful cholesterol levels in the blood and lower a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke. Scientists developed the microalgae-produced oil from the University of Malaya in collaboration with Scientist from NTU.
To produce the oils, pyruvic acid- an organic acid that occurs in all living cells- was added to a solution with the algae Chromocloris zofingiensis and exposed to ultraviolet light to stimulate photosynthesis.
After 14 days, the microalgae are washed and dried with methanol to break down the bonds between the oils and the algae protein. The oils can then be extracted. The study results were published in the peer-reviewed academic Journal of Applied Phycology.
Microbial oil more sustainable than palm
Palm oil is the world’s most widely consumed vegetable oil, featuring around half of oil consumer products. Farmers produced 77million tonnes of palm oil for the global market in 2018, and that is expected to grow to 107.6 million tonnes by 2024, according to estimates from the international institute for Sustainable Development.
However, the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations has been linked to deforestation in tropical forests.
The researchers said that their algae oil innovation presents a possible alternative to cultivating palm trees for oil.
Professor William Chen, Director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology (FST) Programme who led the project said, “developing these planets based oils from algae is part of the researcher’s effort to find successful ways to tackle problems in the agri-food tech chain, especially those that hurt the environment.
Uncovering this as a potential human food source is an opportunity to lessen the food supply chain’s import on our planet, Pro Chen added.
Algae: a three-pronged approach to climate change
Besides offering an alternative for plant-based oils or fat, the NTU-developed technique also has the potential to help cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and food waste.
The scientists suggested that when scaled up, the production of the plant-based oils with natural sunlight instead of using ultraviolet lights could help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by converting it to biomass and oxygen via photosynthesis.
“Our solution is a three-pronged approach to solving three pressing issues. We are capitalizing on the concept of establishing a circular economy, finding uses for would-be-waste products, and re-infecting them into the food chain. In this case, we rely on one of nature’s fundamental processes, fermentation, to convert that organic matter into nutrient-rich solutions that could be used to cultivate algae, which reduces our reliance on palm oil and keeps carbon out of the atmosphere.”Prof. Chen