Unilever & Solazyme Working On Algae Oil Process For Soaps And Other Personal Care Products

World consumption of most common commodity triglyceride vegetable oils. Image credit:Wikipedia

Certain plant oils, especially palm oil, have a reputation of being produced unsustainably. Many plant oils are low-cost commodities (see table above for recent global volumes). Certain of the commodity plant oils are used extensively in soap and personal care products; and demand for these is increasing (a growing market segment does not accept animal fat-based product). For personal care products of the future, a key challenge is to find sustainable feedstock plant oils or alternatives to them.

Unilever has an interesting research project underway in collaboration with Solazyme, in which they are looking at the feasibility of using bio-reactors for producing pharma-grade algal oil - what you'd want in contact with skin and by your eyes. Using fermentation-type bio-reactors is already a core competency. Plus, Unilever knows how to get regulatory approvals; and, because personal care products are made with specialty oils, the algal-based versions might bring in enough money to recover R&D; costs in a timely manner. Very different than dealing with say, bio-diesel price fluctuations.From the Solazyme website:

"Algal oil provides important benefits in personal care applications," explained Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme. "Solazyme's algal oils can help meet the growing demand for completely renewable, natural and sustainable personal care products. Unilever is an acknowledged world leader in sustainability and we are honored to be working with them to develop this new renewable source of natural oils for their world class consumer products."

Solazyme and Unilever are working to demonstrate a process to incorporate targeted algal oils into personal care products at a commercially relevant scale. The work will further develop Solazyme's technology platform, which allows algae to produce oil and biomaterials in standard fermentation facilities quickly, efficiently and at large scale.

Among other sustainability initiatives, Unilever is vigorously exploring various next-generation sources of renewable oil for use in its products. Unilever's collaboration with Solazyme represents a substantial step in the company's exploration of algae as a source of renewable oil.

Discussion points.
Algae are not really in the plant kingdom and therefore algae oil does not belong under the commercial category of "plant oils," per se. This might be a regulatory issue later...we'll see. For you non-biologists and non-botanists here is high level summary of the "planti-ness" issue, by Kelly Cassidy, as noted on a discussion forum on iVillage Garden Web.
Algae is a catch-all term that refers to single-celled (plus a few relatively simple multi-celled) organisms that photosynthesize. They are no longer, with one possible exception, considered Plants (i.e., members of the plant kingdom).

Plants are multi-celled organisms that evolved from a group of algae called Green Algae. Some taxonomic schemes include Green Algae (a mostly freshwater group of algae) in the plant kingdom; some don't.

There are also Red Algae, Brown, Algae, Dinoflagellates, etc. etc., Most algae are tossed into the Protist category, which is itself now a catch-all term for anything not considered an animal, plant, fungus, or bacteria.

Blue-green algae are not considered Protists. They are a type of photosynthetic bacteria.

Now, to really increase the confusion: Most of the DNA in plants is in the nucleus. Chloroplasts, those little organelles in plant that do the photosynthesis, have their own DNA. Chloroplast DNA is very similar to the DNA in blue-green algae. Green algae (and other types of algae) are believed to have gained the ability to photosynthesize when an ancient one-celled critter engulfed a blue-green bacteria and eventually entered into a symbiotic relationship with it.

But getting back to the classification issue. Right now, classification is really up in the air, especially for protists. An 8-Kingdom system is semi-popular right now, but no one is really committed to it. Biologists are kind of making do until there are more genetic studies on bacteria and protists. The protists, especially, are a big mess.

More discussion.

  • For every pound of algae oil soap sold, that's a pound of palm or olive oil soap not sold - making this project a good sustainability bet.

  • Validity of a future "sustainability" advantage claim would depend on energy, nutrient, and water consumption over the product life cycle, as compared to the same metrics for imported palm or olive oil soaps.

  • If the collaborating firms get patent(s) and can see real cost savings with algal oil over other imported plant oils, I predict this will be a winner for them.

Earlier Solazyme posts on TreeHugger.com
Chevron Backs Solazyme to Develop Algal Biodiesel Technology ...
Solazyme: Millions of Gallons of Algae Biodiesel Within 3 Years
What's Jimmy Carter Got To Do With Algae Bio-Diesel? :
Future Biofuels Could Be Created Out of Thin Air: Craig Venter ...