NTU Singapore, Eves Energy collaborate to scale up innovative palm oil alternative

An initiative to produce an alternative to palm oil for food applications, developed by scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) will be scaled-up for commercial production through a partnership with Eves Energy, a research and development company that focusses on scaling up innovations that hold the key to clean energy systems.

The innovation [1] developed by a team led by Professor William Chen, Director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology (FST) Programme, features a method that effec-tively produces and extracts plant-based oils from a type of common microalgae. As the oils produced from the microalgae are edible and have superior properties to those found in palm oil, the newly discovered method would serve as a healthier and greener alternative to palm oil.

Left to right: NTU PhD student Aaron Li, Eves Energy Financial Advisor Veronica Fu, Director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology (FST) Programme Professor William Chen, NTU Vice President (Innovation & Entrepreneurship) Professor Louis Phee, President and CEO of Eves Energy Dr Lanz Chan,  and Vice President and COO of Eves Energy Argun Boldkhet.

After the oil has been harvested from the algae, the rest of the plant, which is edible, is then converted into algae cake, a nutrient-rich food product that can be converted into supplements, as well as used in food production as seaweed.

The collaboration will see Eves Energy set up a facility in Indonesia in 2024 with 400,000 tanks that could produce 1.2 million metric tonnes of microalgae oil and 1.2 million metric tonnes of algae cake within two years. In addition to being a palm oil alternative, the microalgae oil produced from this endeavour could also be a sustainable source of renewable energy.

The two-year strategic plan would also benefit the environment as the production of the microalgae at such a scale would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere by a projected 2.6 million metric tonnes [2]. This is due to the microalgae’s reputation as ‘carbon sinks’, as they grow rapidly and photosynthesise, absorbing the gas and releasing oxygen.

The move to scale up the NTU-developed method to produce an alternative to palm oil reflects NTU’s commitment to mitigating our impact on the environment, which is one of four of humanity’s grand challenges that the University seeks to address through its NTU 2025 strategic plan. Due to its low cost and high yield, palm oil is the world’s most popular vegetable oil. It features in about half of all consumer products and plays a central role in a large range of industrial applications However, widespread deforestation in several countries and the destruction of habitat of endangered native wildlife have been blamed on the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations.

NTU Professor Louis Phee, Vice President (Innovation & Entrepreneurship), said:
“NTU’s collaboration with Eves Energy that will allow the company to establish an algae oil production facility by leveraging the University’s innovation exemplifies our commitment to translating groundbreaking research into tangible industrial outcomes that not only generate profit but also positively impact the world. Sustainability lies at the heart of this transformative venture, aligning seamlessly with NTU’s core values. It is our firm belief that innovative solutions can and should be drivers of positive change, addressing pressing global challenges.

‘Oiling’ the gears of green innovation

To produce the oils, the NTU team’s method involves adding pyruvic acid, an organic acid that occurs in all living cells, to a solution with the algae Chromochloris zofingiensis and exposed to ultraviolet light to stimulate photosynthesis.

After 14 days, the microalgae are washed, dried, and then treated with methanol to break down the bonds between the oils and the algae protein, so that the oils can be extracted.

Cultivating microalgae for their oil stands out as a more sustainable and environmentally responsible alternative to palm oil production as it significantly reduces deforestation, because they can be grown in controlled environments, thus preserving critical ecosystems and habitats. The rapid growth cycle of algae facilitates quicker and more efficient oil production compared to the years required for palm trees to mature.

Prof Chen added: “Our solution is a three-pronged approach to solving three pressing issues. We are capitalising on the concept of establishing a circular economy, finding uses for would-be waste products and re-injecting them into the food chain. In this case, we rely on one of nature’s key processes, fermentation, to convert that organic matter into nutrient-rich solutions, which could be used to cultivate algae, which not only reduces our reliance on palm oil, but keeps carbon out of the atmosphere.”

The NTU team will be exploring adding the microalgae oil to plant-based meats to improve their texture and nutritional properties. They also hope to explore pharmaceutical and cosmetic uses in products such as topical creams, lipsticks, and more.

1. Using microalgae to produce an alternative to palm oil, NTU Singapore (2022). https://www.ntu.edu.sg/news/detail/using-microalgae-to-produce-an-alternative-to-palm-oil
2. Molecules, Trends on CO2 Capture with Microalgae: A Bibliometric Analysis (2022).