Bright eyed about pink algae

IT might lack the glamour and mystique of oysters and pearls, but pink algae is a lucrative aquaculture crop in WA, producing a natural colourant and dietary supplement that can sell for more than $2,000 a litre.

The demand for natural beta carotene and natural environ-mental conditions has proved a lucrative combination for pink algal operations in WA.

The worldwide market for beta carotene is estimated to be worth more than $50 million annually.

There are only a handful of algae farm operators in WA but a new business, Beta Nutrients, located outside Carnarvon, is scheduled to begin commercial production in the next few months.

Beta Nutrition managing director Rod Jasper said the industry has been around since the 1980s, at which time WA’s environmental conditions were recognised as ideal for the production of algae and extraction of the high value-added ingredient beta carotene.

“It takes advantage of all the natural features of WA and it’s a high value added product with a world market,” Mr Jasper said.

Mr Jasper and associate Dr Peter Keating teamed up eight years ago and agreed to work towards putting together a value-added food colouring business.

“We’ve got some patent technology invented by Peter and we think that will give us some advantage,” Mr Jasper said.

Beta Nutrition grows the algae in very salty ponds and then harvests it and extracts the beta carotene, which is onsold to a number of different manufacturing industries as both a colourant and nutritional supplement.

The ideal growing conditions for the algae is water with about six times the salt concentration of the ocean.

“They’re just single cell algae and they replicate by dividing and multiplying.

The idea is to develop the biomass. They like the sun and salty conditions so we tweak the conditions to where they will carry more beta carotene,” Mr Jasper said.

“In its pure form, beta carotene is a little crystal but it’s mostly sold in oil at 2 per cent or 10 per cent, and it’s used in many nutritional supplements, soft drinks and cosmetics.

“And in the broader market the dominant part is food colourings … and finally back into stock feeds to give the pink colour to salmon and prawns.”

Such operations require massive quantities of water every day when in production to harvest small quantities of beta carotene

Cognis Australia, which produces about 80 per cent of the world’s natural beta keratin between its operations in WA and SA, has ponds covering 500 hectares.

Located north of Geraldton, the Cognis Australia Operation pumps millions of litres of water every hour to harvest the algae.

“It takes a couple of days from go to whoa and we send it out of here in an oil and it gets further processed in Melbourne,” Cognis Australia Hut Lagoon manager Boyd King said.

“We also produce spray dried algae for fish foods … it’s used as the final meal for shrimp and also helps the vitality of shrimp.”

The largest buyers for Cognis Australia’s beta keratin are Amway in the US and the General Nutrition Companies, a large US health food chain with its own range of mineral supplements.

And with a growth rate of about 30 per cent a year, this aquaculture industry is a major earner for Cognis Australia and WA.

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