Microalgae produces alternative to palm oil

A team of scientists has developed a method to effectively produce and extract vegetable oils from a species of common microalgae

Professor William Chen and FST researcher Dr Ng Kuan Rei, director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology (FST) program (Image: NTU Singapore)

Since the oils produced from the microalgae are edible and are said to have superior properties than those in palm oil, the newly discovered method led by scientists led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) would serve as a healthier and greener alternative. for palm oil.

Compared to palm oil, the oil derived from the microalgae contains more polyunsaturated fatty acids, which may help lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. The oil produced by microalgae, developed in collaboration with scientists from the University of Malaya, Malaysia, is also lower in saturated fatty acids, which have been linked to stroke and related conditions.


Palm oil is the world’s most widely used vegetable oil. It occurs in about half of all consumer products and plays a central role in many industrial applications. Farmers produced 77 million tons of palm oil for the global market in 2018, and that is expected to grow to 107.6 million tons by 2024. However, the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations is blamed for massive deforestation in several countries, habitat destruction and danger to indigenous peoples. fauna.

To produce the oils, pyruvic acid – an organic acid found in all living cells – is added to a solution containing the algae Chromochloris zofingiensis and exposed to ultraviolet light to stimulate photosynthesis.

After 14 days, the microalgae are washed, dried and treated with methanol to break the bonds between the oils and the algal protein so that the oils can be extracted. The team said it has also developed “green” processing technology to efficiently extract microalgae-derived vegetable oils. The results of the study were published in Journal of Applied Phycology

In a statement, project leader Professor William Chen, director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology (FST) Program, said: “The development of these vegetable oils from algae is another victory for NTU Singapore as we look for successful ways to address problems. in the agri-food tech chain, especially those with a negative impact on the environment. By exposing this as a potential food source for humans, we can reduce the impact of the food supply chain on our planet.”

The scientists said that when scaled up, producing the vegetable oils with natural sunlight instead of ultraviolet light would help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by converting it into biomass and oxygen via photosynthesis. As the microalgae grow, the carbon dioxide converts to biomass relatively quickly, the team said.

In a separate study, the scientists of NTU’s Food Science and Technology program have also developed a process to produce pyruvic acid, the main reaction ingredient needed to grow the microalgae oil. This is done by fermenting organic waste products, such as soybean residues and fruit peels, which would not only reduce production costs but also help reduce food waste.

Prof Chen said: “Our solution is a three-pronged approach to solve three pressing problems. We capitalize on the concept of creating a circular economy, finding uses for waste products and reinjecting them into the food chain. In this case, we rely on one of nature’s most important processes, fermentation, to convert that organic matter into nutrient-rich solutions, which can be used to grow algae, which not only reduces our dependence on palm oil, but also removes carbon from the atmosphere holds.”

The scientists will now work on optimizing their extraction methods to improve yield and quality. The research team added that it has attracted interest from food and beverage partners and could explore how to scale up their operations within two years.

Due to the properties of the oils, the NTU team will investigate adding them to vegetable meats to improve their texture and nutritional properties. They also hope to explore pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications.

Abhishek Maheswari
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