Euglena sets sights as an Olympic hopeful for algae-based aviation jet fuel

August 3, 2019 |

Midorimushi – other than being a cool sounding Ninja name, it’s scientific name is Euglena. No, it’s not the latest superhero in a manga comic. It’s a kind of algae. In a magical sort of hybrid way, it has both plant and animal properties and has 59 types of nutrients such as unsaturated fatty acids such as DHA and EPA contained in fish.

Japan-based company, Euglena, is using these magical microalgae to develop foods and cosmetics as well as conducting research for the production of biofuels. Euglena’s sales last year reached $133 million, according to The Investor, which is no small potatoes. While they have five businesses – health care, beauty care, biofuel, genome/health check, GENKI program which is a child’s health improvement – most of their sales, 99% of it, comes from the food and health care sectors.

According to Euglena, this algae is not any ole’ algae – it “contains almost all of the nutrients that humans need.” Even better, it is photosynthetic and can be made from using carbon dioxide originating from steelworks and thermal power plants. Yep, you got that right. Superalgae made from carbon dioxide waste.

The back story

Euglena was established in 2005 and started mass cultivation of the Euglena microalgae that same year. They conducted demo experiments using Euglena from CO2 exhaust gas at a coal fired power plant in the Okinawa Prefecture back in 2009 and a few years later using exhaust gas of a thermal power plant. 2010 brought visions and partnerships with other companies on biofuel for the aviation industry. Their target year for commercialization of their biofuel is closer than you might think – 2020. A few years later they obtained Halal certification for their Euglena food material and succeeded in developing a breeding method to select Euglena mutants that produce a large amount of oil and constructed Japan’s largest fuel culture pool. In total, they have been making Euglena on a commercial production scale for 14 years which is an impressive feat in and of itself.

As reported in The Digest in June, Euglena has teamed with Itochu on a demonstration project in Indonesia that will produce euglena microalgae from carbon dioxide and waste heat from a nearby thermal power plant beginning soon, but the location of the plant nor the project were released. Itochu has been collaborating with Euglena since 2013 when it began putting the algae in yogurts.

Biofuels Olympic hopeful

Euglena is moving along quite well in its R&D for biofuels and, according to The Investor, is hoping to produce biofuel for airplanes flying into Tokyo for the Summer Olympics next year. Their biofuel production factory was completed this past fall, as reported in the Digest in November. What’s the feedstock? Why, it’s euglena of course!

Euglena Biofuel Business Manager Tstsu Kou told The Investor, “Producing euglena biofuel is cheaper compared to biofuels that are produced from other materials like coconuts, corns or beans.” He also noted that euglena is not commonly consumed as food so it has less ethical issues for use as biofuels. “Now in Japan, most people acknowledge euglena and do not feel offensive about using it.”

Cheaper, you say? Yes, cheaper says Euglena. As for the cost compared to fossil fuels, Kou told The Investor, “It is true that the current biofuel costs are high, but in the future when the cost of other fossil fuels rises, we see that biofuel prices will be at similar levels. So, we can become more competitive.” They are apparently hoping for some support from Japanese government via grants to further their biofuel efforts, as they currently don’t have any such grants. Since Japan promised to decrease GHG emissions by 26% by 2030, the hope is that it will help push more government support towards biofuel usage like Euglena’s.

They haven’t been going at it alone and have leveraged others to help move biofuels forward, having entered into a licensing agreement and engineering contract for biofuel iso-conversion process technology with Chevron Lummus Global & Applied Research Associates back in 2015. As for biodiesel, they signed a joint research contract with Isuzu Motors Ltd. in June 2014 for the commercialization of the next-generation biodiesel derived from the microalga Euglena, DeuSEL. They are also now participating in the “strategic review committee to introduce biojet fuel for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Congress”.

As reported in The Digest in March 2019, Euglena teamed with auto parts manufacturer Denso Tech who the company believes holds the key to its commercialization plans, allowing it to increase production by 1,000—yes, 1,000—percent. Euglena started building its first commercial-scale algae biodiesel production facility last year with a production capacity of 125,000 liters per year. Denso has already been researching algae production for the past 10 years. Currently, Euglena’s fuel is being trialed in buses in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Kindness matters

Euglena is also using their business for good, particularly with their GENKI program. Launched in 2014, their aim was to help solve the nutritional problems of children in Bangladesh where nutrition is a huge issue. According to Euglena, half of children in Bangladesh under 5 years old are anemic and 36% are deficient in vitamin A, B12, iron, and zinc.

Through Euglena’s GENKI program, they distribute Euglena-rich cookies with abundant nutrients to children in Bangladesh free of charge (using a portion of their regular business sales to support this program). Six Euglena cookies, which is a one serving single meal, can provide children in Bangladesh with one day’s worth of nutrients that are particularly lacking.

As of the end of March 2019, Euglena cookies were distributed on an average of 5 days a week to approximately 10,000 children in 58 schools, and the total number of distributions exceeded 7 million meals.

Bottom Line

Just a few days ago, the biofuel produced by Euglena was used at the Minato Mirai Smart Festival for the festival generators and they plan for the full-scale delivery of biofuels sometime this year for sure. They have the partnerships in place. They have the biofuel production facility. They have a super-feedstock. They have the research and knowledge on algae to make it all happen. Heck, they even have a nutritious Euglena algae, fruit and vegetable juice beverage to be launched on September 24 in Japan. All that’s left is the Olympics Gold medal for doing so many things with euglena algae.

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