Algae are seen as a possible alternative to greenhouse production, but is that so? In Nevele, Belgium, Tomalgae is growing algae in a former tomato greenhouse. Entrepreneur William van der Riet talks about the similarities and differences between the cultivation of vegetables and algae.Algae cultivation in the greenhouse, with tomatoes on the side
It must have been a strange sight last year at the Tomaholic nursery in Westdorpe; a number of basins to cultivate algae had been set up in the technical area for the cultivation of tomatoes. Entrepreneurs Piet de Schepper and Marc Temmerman wished to diversify and decided to collaborate with Dr. Viktor Chepurnov, a specialist with over 30 years' experience in microalgae, to introduce algae cultivation.
The greenhouse in Westdorpe was eventually sold, but the algae are still grown. In Nevele, Belgium, a part of the tomato greenhouse has been reserved for this. "In Westdorpe we managed to show that we can cultivate a product of consistent quality," says William van der Riet, who along with De Schepper and Temmermans founded the algae production nursery Tomalgae last year.
The algae growers: Viktor Chepurnov, Piet de Schepper and William van der Riet
Algae cultivation is frequently referred to as an opportunity for greenhouses. Algae are suitable as raw material for the bio-based sector, to produce plastics, energy or fuel, or to clean water. But it is not that simple, according to Van der Riet. "Those projects are still very expensive and not profitable." Tomalgae does it differently. The company focuses on high-value applications of algae. Van der Riet: "Algae is the collective name of a plant species. There are over 200,000 types of algae of which four are currently grown on a commercial scale. If you want to get value from algae, you need to focus on a specific function."
On the back, the tomato crops are visible. Quite unique that it all comes from the same greenhouse.
Tomalgae processes algae into a concentrate, a powder. This concentrate is exported and goes to shrimp nurseries. "Like in plant cultivation, you have nurseries in that sector. The propagation phase is also critical here and takes 21 days," explains Van der Riet. Tomalgae's concentrate can serve as food for the young shrimp during the first three days. Shrimp farmers are still using home-grown algae for that.
"The risks with this self-cultivation are high and breeders have long been looking for alternatives. The product we manufacture appears to be a suitable replacement to living algae." The transition to concentrate, according to Van der Riet, is similar to the shift from soil to hydroponic cultivation in greenhouses, a process about which both he and Piet de Schepper learned at Grodan.
Last year, with the production from Westdorpe, it was demonstrated that the company is able to deliver an effective product of consistent quality. The product is currently being introduced in Thailand and China. With next year's commercial launch in Vietnam, the growth in the number of international clients and the multi-year contracts, it will be necessary for cultivation in Nevele to increase in scale. Currently we are working on 1,250 m2. Next year this should grow to a half hectare. On the other side of the greenhouse, pink tomatoes continue to grow.The final product: high quality nutrients for shrimp nurseries worldwide Vegetables and algae
It appears to be a perfect combination: greenhouse vegetables and algae. Yet there is more to it. In Nevele, the algae are completely separated from the tomatoes. "A separate heating schedule; a separate water system," says Van der Riet. "In plant breeding and cultivation of algae you have to deal with photosynthesis and similar issues. You work on a micro scale, at the cellular level, and you have no crop protection." The appearance of weeds is currently a big problem. "They can completely kill your entire production in just a few days. And parasites can also eat the algae. It's just like with tomatoes, but in this case you have no plant protection. You have to constantly manipulate the environment."
Not much is known yet about the cultivation of algae. "Very few people know how algae works. It is still a very young crop and you have to deal also with wild isolates," explains Van der Riet. "There are still few domesticated varieties suitable for cultivation." Tomalgae works with its own, self-developed kind; "high-quality algae which is also suitable to grow on an industrial scale. We grow in a vegetative manner and we need to go regularly back to the parent line to maintain quality."
Van der Riet does not see this form of algae cultivation as an alternative to greenhouses. "Perhaps in the future, but now it is not realistic. Algae are often seen as a residue but algae also contain high quality raw materials. To be able to grow algae suited for high performance applications consistently, you should, above all, have dedication and knowledge of the biology."