Readers of this newsletter will be familiar with the scourge of palm oil, which we looked at in a previous installment. Palm oil is a creamy, high-smoke-point fat that can be found in a staggering number of prepared foods, cosmetics, and industrial products. Its value has led to the deforestation of large swathes of Malaysia and Indonesia in favour of tracts oil palm trees, destroying the natural habitat of critically endangered orangutans. In addition, child labour is often used in the farming and harvesting of this oil.
As dirty as the palm oil industry is, we’ve all seen how hard it is to uncouple capitalism from cheap ways of doing things. That’s why this recent news from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Malaysia’s University of Malay is so exciting: They’re investigating harvesting oil from a common micro-algae to replace – and health-wise, even surpass – palm oil. The fascinating process has been detailed in a recent Journal of Applied Phycology
“For the study, the researchers added pyruvic acid – which is an organic acid present in all living cells – to a solution consisting of the micro-algae and a liquid growth medium. The mixture was then exposed to ultraviolet light, to stimulate photosynthesis. After 14 days, the algae was removed, washed, dried and then treated with methanol. The latter treatment was required in order to break the bonds between the algae proteins and the oils produced by those proteins during the photosynthesis process.
The harvested oil is said to possess qualities similar to those of palm oil, although it contains significantly fewer saturated fatty acids, offset by a larger percentage of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids. In the present version of the technology, 160 grams of algae would be required to produce enough oil to manufacture a 100-gram chocolate bar.”
To boost the sustainability factor, the team notes they are able to derive the pyruvic acid which kick-starts the procedure from food waste, like fruit peels and soybean pulp. They also envision large scale production that uses sunlight as the required UV light source – one step away from literal farming itself!
This innovation is so low cost, I really hope it catches on. Palm oil is one of those things that we can afford to have “go extinct” – I’d rather have my cake and orangutans too.