Interview with Soheyl Mottahedeh
WT: Congratulations on advancing to the semi-finals in the Deep Space Food Challenge!
You have said, “the stars were aligned for a space project”. Why was this Challenge synchronistic for your Richmond, BC Company, AlgalBloom?
Mottahedeh: When our technology overcame past limitations of size, energy, and resources, I knew that “stars had aligned for a space project” while rejoicing for the far-off rural communities that I had served in Africa and Southeast Asia for over 25 years.
WT: You are a mechanical engineer and have been described as a humanitarian. What motivates you?
Mottahedeh: From childhood, deeply inspired by Abdu’l’-Baha’s example and his words “the suffering of one, is the suffering of all”, I wanted to follow his model. I became an engineer and a humanitarian hoping to make the world a better place.
WT: According to your website, AlgaBloom was founded in 2014 to harness the power of algae to improve our planet and the health of its people.
Why were you inspired to harness the power of algae?
Mottahedeh: Interestingly, spirulina became known to the general public in the 1980s, only after a NASA patent proposed that algae be used as a bioregenerative solution to sustain the life of astronauts in space missions.
Science had established that about 3.6 billion years ago, algae (or cyanobacteria) was the first form of life that absorbed CO2 and released oxygen. Algae is recognized as a source for the evolution of both bacterial and plant life.
This implies that our food chain depends on algae which can be viewed as the “source code” for generating bioproducts.
As sustainable biofactories, algae are being gradually used in the economy as food, feed, fuel, fertilizer, fabrics, bioplastics, cosmetics, pharma or fine chemicals—all generated naturally while releasing fresh oxygen and cleaning wastewaters.
WT: Please describe your flagship technology.
Mottahedeh: Through 14 years of R&D, we found that the traditional method of suspending algae in water or gel and flooding them with light and nutrients was not efficient.
We developed a scalable method of culture in solid-state cartridges 600 times more efficient, requiring 95% less water on a 23 times smaller footprint.
Our AlgaCube model is an ultra-compact Biophotonic bioreactor that encloses around 10 solid-state cartridges to produce bioproducts using only an intrinsic amount of water and energy required by cells and not more. Simply put – it is an efficient photocopier of nature’s bioproducts using algae as a biofactory to reproduce itself.
Our AlgaBox is the size of a 40-foot container and can hold up to 1000 cartridges.
It can convert carbon emissions into useful products and pay back the investment within 2 or 3 years.
AlgaBloom’s R&D has focused on designing, manufacturing, and operating bioreactors. To advance biology research, the company partnered with UBC Hallam Lab in 2018.
AlgaBloom has been serving the Food & Beverage Industry for the last 7 years by producing algae called Spirulina.
WT: You have also cultivated a novel alga that could be ideal for Space missions. How did this come about?
Mottahedeh: We also have been cultivating algae that we named AB48 -- which stands for AlgaBloom 48-hour harvest cycle.
These algae, identified as part of the Phormidium family, came from natural spring water that was introduced to our spirulina culture.
Over a 2–3-year period, these algae combined with our spirulina and took over the culture in one of our bioreactors, doubling our productivity.
This resulted in a new, natural, super-resistant Canadian algae species finally called Phormidium Yuhuli AB48.
A full genome sequencing of AB48 revealed that it combined the rich, nutritional genes of our original tropical African Spirulina with the robustness, resilience and contamination resistance of a Canadian-sourced algae.
Hallam Lab’s research on AB48 spanning over 5 years resulted in five recent scientific articles.
WT: What are the unique abilities/possibilities of AB48 terrestrially?
Mottahedeh: AB48 can become a genetical chassis to over-express genes of interest for making pharmaceuticals or serve as a superfood in hospitals and long-term facilities to lower Canada’s health care costs. It can help regenerate neuron cells to fight PTSD and generally boost health.
It has the potential to fight against malnutrition during disaster recovery operations, and create local bioproduction of vitamins and nutraceuticals that come with live enzymes, used for mass production of plant-based protein.
AB48 could support large carbon capture projects by converting CO2 into biofertilizers to prevent large-scale famine; treat wastewaters; and even produce biodegradable bioplastics
WT: Now on to Space! Please tell us about your collaboration with the Hallam Lab on this project.
Mottahedeh: In Phase 1 of the DSFC, AlgaBloom presented the first version of a Photobioreactor for space, based on 13 years of R&D, at the time. The Company used the concept and design of its earlier AlgaBox model to participate in the Challenge.
The UBC Hallam Lab provided scientific validation regarding our proposed alga-based food AB48. The UBC team confirmed the resilience, reliability and resistance of the algae against contamination and more importantly its safety for human consumption.
After sequencing the full genome of AB48 at Berkeley in California, the Hallam Lab analyzed the genes of interest and found no toxic genes present in the AB48 genome. It also confirmed the presence of a wide range of genes such as phycocyanobilin, beta carotene, and essential amino acids known for their potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
WT: Your entry in the Challenge is described as: “A Programmable microalgae Cultivation Platform for Sustainable Food Production in Space.” What is the platform capable of?
Mottahedeh: “Programmable platform” refers to the programmability of technology, biology, and bioproducts.
Technology-wise, the bioreactor controls the light intensity, light and dark cycles, amount of nutrients, pH, temperature and automated harvesting cycles.
Biology-wise, programming the composition of nutrients affects the metabolism of the algae which in turn produces metabolites or bioproducts of particular interest.
For example, many populations in the world are lacking selenium in their body. Selenium in the form of minerals is metabolized by the algae which generates the necessary enzymes to make this selenium acceptable and 95% digestible to the human body.
Otherwise only 5-10%maximum is digested. The rest 90-95% end up in wastewater, much like most vitamins and pharmaceuticals do.
WT: How can your technology close the sustainability loop in Space?
Mottahedeh: As technology evolves both on Earth and in Space, what we call human “waste” is actually a resource, like in nature, for the food chain.
Respiration from astronauts exhausts CO2 that can be captured by algae to generate oxygen and food.
Food eaten by the crew generates urine that can become a nutrient to the algae.
Urine contains urea, a source of fertilizers used in organic agriculture (for which we pay a higher price). Urine can be sterilized, dried and transformed into minerals like other fertilizers. The water in urine can be separated and recycled. This becomes a circular model.
WT: How do you envision your project operating on a long-term Space mission?
Mottahedeh: Our algae-growing cartridges can be automatically harvested either daily (if partially harvested) or twice a week. To fight the short and long effects of cosmic radiation, astronauts will need to drink our Spirulina-like drink.
Excess algae beyond daily use can be either added as a paste to some flour to make spaghetti or can be made into jelly or dried flakes.
The operation is fully automatic and comes with a safe self-cleaning and self-sanitizing system.
Once the algae are inoculated, the same “seed” can be used on and on in our continuous bioreactor, without requiring new algae input. Various species of algae can perform different functions. Frozen algae species can be stored eternally, without an expiry date.
WT: What stage are you currently at in the development of the program?
Mottahedeh: We have been growing and selling Spirulina and AB48 for over 6 years with our customers reporting health benefits. Our newest model of Cartridge technology has been tested for over 1.5 years.
Given that gravity on the Moon is 1/6 of Earth, our system would have no problem operating on the moon
WT: What is the next step in the Challenge?
Mottahedeh: Our next step is to adapt parts and materials used in our terrestrial technology to parts and materials more adapted for Space exploration.
WT: How is the DSFC enhancing your vision for AlgaBloom here on Earth?
Mottahedeh: The Challenge has inspired and enhanced our vision to develop a technology that offers the world a more plug-and-play, cartridge-based system that non-experts can easily operate.
The system has removed or substantially reduced past scaling and maintenance challenges. Doors are opening for envisioning size-agnostic solutions that address large environmental problems including wastewater treatment and carbon capture and conversion into profitable and economically viable bioproducts. Turning eco-liabilities into bio-assets.
Nature’s way is the only sustainable way, and algae has proven it!