Ned Whalley| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Scientists from the American University of Beirut have released the results of a three-year study on the potential commercial uses of Lebanon’s coastal microalgae, citing possible applications in medicine, agriculture, nutrition and as renewable source of biofuel.

Part of EU-backed project entitled “Production of biofuels from microalgae in selected Mediterranean Countries ENPI MED- ALGAE,” the study identified more than 20 species of local microalgae with the potential for economic exploitation.

Dr. Yusuf Abou Jawdah, who led the study with professors Youssef Mouneimne and Kamal Bouhadir, pointed to the unique properties of microalgae, which could drive its adoption for use in a number of sectors. “Microalgae have very high potential to produce biomass, faster than any other organism – 10 to 30 times the production of other plants,” Abou Jawdah told The Daily Star.

As it grows under different conditions than traditional crops, microalgae’s cultivation does not require the same input of resources.

“They do not compete with food [crops] for land or water – you can use sea water to produce [them]. You don’t need good quality land, you can grow in tanks. People can even grow it on their rooftops,” Abou Jawdah said.

The study is being conducted as part of a collaboration between AUB, the Lebanese Association for Energy Saving and for Environment (AMLEE), and 10 other organizations from Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Egypt.

The AUB team focused on the viability of local microalgae cultures, as the composition of different species can vary dramatically.

“What we do is we go and collect samples and look at what they’re composed of – their oil content, their protein, the quality of the oil.”

Though microalgae-sourced biofuel is not yet commercially viable, increased research and improved cultivation methods could make it so very soon. Abou Jawdah said one U.S. company already claims to be producing at a competitive price. “There [will be] great potential in five years.”

Biofuel is just one byproduct of cultivation, and the costs of its production could be partially offset by other applications of the algae. The study has identified a number of such opportunities.

The chemical profiles of some species could make them candidates for use as a nutritional supplement. “If you look at water use efficiency for making protein, its 20 times more efficient than beef … we even have some with high [levels of] Omega 3 fatty acids,” Abou Jawdah said.

Some contain antibacterial and antibiotic qualities that could make them suitable for use in farming and agriculture. “In Lebanon we have a big market for poultry and they use a lot of antibiotics for preventive treatment. Now [if] we can give them microalgae, they don’t need the antibiotics, grow healthier, [and] their meat and eggs are more nutritious,” Abou Jawdah said.

Abou Jawdah added that it has the potential to be developed as an organic pesticide.

“There is evidence that if you spray it on plants they become more immune to pests, and grow better.”

If successfully developed, it could help relieve some of the massive abuse of toxic chemicals in Lebanon’s agricultural sector.

Abou Jawdah said the next step is construction of a facility to grow and process the microalgae. “A bio refinery – that’s what we are calling for in our research.”

He claimed investors were already lining up. “They came for oil, but [now] they may invest in bio refineries for the antibiotic and other [applications].”

AMLEE has already begun mapping potential sites for microalgae cultivation. “We should complete our studies in two years, and if we can confirm our results … something very interesting could happen,” Abou Jawdah said.

“It’s been very promising.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 12, 2015, on page 4.