Food, face cream and jet fuel: Japanese firm finds many uses for algae

A tiny organism thinner than a strand of hair could help fuel airplanes in the future.
Japanese firm Euglena has been cultivating a type of algae for use in food and cosmetics. But it sees a range of other potential uses for it.
The company is aiming to produce 33,000 gallons of jet fuel a year from Japan’s first algae biofuel refinery, partnering with top Japanese airline ANA (ALNPY).
“Everyone says it’s crazy the first time they hear the idea,” said Euglena’s founder, Mitsuru Izumo. But “in terms of science and technology … it’s a very simple idea,” he added.

Oil that is chemically similar to kerosene can be extracted from the dried algae’s powder.
Euglena, which shares its name with the algae its business relies on, is building a test facility in Yokohama, near one of Tokyo’s two main airports. It’s expected to pump out five barrels of “green crude” a day after it comes online next year.
But that amount is tiny. Izumo wants to ramp up production 400% and open a second refinery by 2020 in order to bring down the cost of the carbon-neutral biofuel to make it commercially viable.

 

 

Even then, the algae extract will have to be blended with regular jet fuel and will still only provide enough for a limited number of flights.
Izumo came across the algae — which has characteristics of both plants and animals — while searching for a superfood. After witnessing starving children during a 1998 visit to Bangladesh, he wanted to help fight malnutrition.
He was inspired by a story in a manga comic to find a “magic bean”-like ingredient that could solve major problems facing the world.

Izumo didn’t find a magic bean, so he settled for microscopic algae instead.
That decision has worked out well. He’s built a company out of it that’s valued at around $930 million on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
And some of his staff have dreams of even more ambitious applications, including using the algae to power a trip to Mars and feed the astronauts along the way.
“If we can cultivate it in space, it could be used to support human lives,” said research director Kengo Suzuki. He admitted, though, that a lot more research is needed.

U.N. report estimates pesticides kill 200,000 people per year

Seeking to draft a global treaty banning the use of dangerous pesticides, a United Nations report presented Wednesday estimated 200,000 people globally die each year as a result of chronic exposure to agricultural chemicals.

The report’s authors, Hilal Elver and Baskut Tuncak, both special rapporteurs to the U.N. on food and toxins respectively, said those affected are almost all farmers in the developing world. They condemned the widespread use of dangerous pesticides in a presentation to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“Excessive use of pesticides are very dangerous to human health, to the environment and it is misleading to claim they are vital to ensuring food security,” they said.

Excessive long-term exposure to the chemicals has been linked to a long list of potentially fatal illnesses, from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. Their report stated 99 percent of deaths associated with pesticides happen in third-world countries where regulations governing their use are extremely lax or nonexistent.

Particularly at risk are children who are forced into labor at an early age and are more susceptible to medical problems as a result of chronic pesticide exposure.

There are currently international provisions protecting the use of some pesticides as part of existing law governing the international use of chemicals, but there is no such treaty to govern which chemicals should not be used in the agricultural process, the researchers said.

“Without harmonized, stringent regulations on the production, sale and acceptable levels of pesticide use, the burden of the negative effects of pesticides is felt by poor and vulnerable communities in countries that have less stringent enforcement mechanisms,” they said.