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Green dream: Douglas Martin wants to produce omega-3 rich algae for aquaculture feed using whisky distillery waste water.
Photo: Maverick Photo Agency
Green dream: Douglas Martin wants to produce omega-3 rich algae for aquaculture feed using whisky distillery waste water. Photo: Maverick Photo Agency

Scotland’s whisky distilleries could soon become the source of an economically-competitive supply of omega-3 for salmon feed.

Scientist Douglas Martin, 26, has developed an omega-3-rich microalgae that feeds on the nitrates and phosphates in the waste water from the whisky-making process.

Martin, who has a Masters degree in synthetic biology and biotech from Edinburgh University, has secured funding for his start-up company MiAlgae so he can optimise the production process and grow enough algae for trials with feed manufacturers. He said confidentiality agreements prevented him from saying which distillery he was working with but added that it was “one of the big ones”.

Finite forage fish

The finite supply of forage fish in the world’s oceans means the expanding aquaculture industry has had to look elsewhere for omega-3 in salmon diets and algae is an increasingly established source. TerraVia produces algae in South America for BioMar using fermented plant sugars, and joint venture Veramaris recently revealed plans to build a $200 million commercial-scale facility for producing algae in Nebraska in the US.

MiAlgae’s operation would differ by obtaining nutrients and low or no cost, a win-win for MiAlgae and distillers.

Martin said: “Essentially the big advantage of it is that we are using the nitrate and phosphates from the water, helping the distilleries essentially get rid of their by-product that they otherwise have to process [at a cost], or spread it on land as fertiliser, so we have a way of saving costs on that.

“Part of it is that we would look to use their waste heat too, which is another set-off on the costs [for MiAlgae].”

Talking to feed manufacturers

Martin added: “We have been talking to a couple of feed manufacturers but we haven’t signed anything yet with anyone. We’ve got interest from them but at this stage we’re not producing enough to do trials with them yet. We hope to do that as soon as possible.

“Our next milestone is to get to do trials with them within the next year. That’s realistic. That’s part of what we got the investment for. If we don’t get to trials by the end of this we’ll struggle to get the next round of investment in order to grow it.

“We haven’t gone for a massive round of investment this time, it’s a ‘friends and family’ round as such. This is what will get us to optimise our process, because economics are the main player in what we are trying to do, especially with competitors that are fairly well established.”

Early stage

Martin said that although MiAlgae was focused on the whisky industry, “we are also looking at breweries and other safe waste sources that are high in nitrates and phosphates”. This would enable the company to eventually expand to countries without distilleries and “it also means we have the ability to negotiate a bit harder with the whisky distillers, in terms of if they want to charge us money for their stuff”.

He continued: “It depends on how the process works. The likelihood is that we will go global with a Scottish hub but we’re at quite an early stage. We’d really like to get into the Scottish aquaculture feed sector, and if that works then we need to definitely look at the best way to grow. There’s a number of ways that we can do it. Building facilities is a capital-intensive process.”