Pearse Lyons has seen the future, and it is pond scum.
Scientists call it algae, and the founder and president of Alltech thinks the simple, fast-growing plants have the potential to help solve some of the world's biggest problems: hunger, energy and climate change.
Lyons also thinks algae will help his privately held biotechnology company achieve its goal of $1 billion in annual sales within five years.
Alltech is hosting an invitation-only algae seminar Tuesday through Thursday in Lexington. "It's to educate people about algae and what all the opportunities and possibilities are," said Becky Timmons, Alltech's director of applications research and quality assurance.
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The conference also will be an opportunity to show off Alltech Algae, a new facility beside Interstate 64 near Winchester that by April will become one of the world's largest algae factories.
Alltech bought the plant — built in the 1980s to ferment yeast using whey produced by an adjacent dairy — from Martek Biosciences Corp. last year for $14 million. Since then, the Nicholasville-based company has invested more than $2 million in improvements. Alltech will use the 15-acre facility to research, develop and produce many kinds of algae.
Most of that algae will be used to create new product lines for Alltech's primary business: animal nutritional supplements. The company now makes those products from yeast, bacteria, enzymes and other natural substances.
But when Lyons announced plans for Alltech Algae at his annual international symposium in Lexington last May, he outlined a much grander vision.
"Algae is the way forward," Lyons said, predicting that it will become a major source of nutrients for both animals and people, as well a source of biomass fuel for energy production. After all, much of the fossil fuel we use today was created from fossilized algae.
Lyons also thinks algae could be a big part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions created from burning fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. That is because algae can absorb twice its weight in carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen.
Indeed, scientists believe algae originally played a key role in creating earth's oxygen-rich atmosphere. "We think, just like four billion years ago, algae will be the future," Lyons said.
Much processed human food in this country already includes some form of algae supplement, often as a thickener or stabilizer, Timmons said. Many of the approximately 10 million species of algae are high in proteins, minerals, vitamins, starches or oils that have many uses — and potentially many more uses that nobody has figured out yet.
Algae also has a huge advantage over other crops: it grows faster than anything else, which explains why algae scum flourishes in nutrient-rich farm ponds.
Kyle Raney, who will head product development at Alltech Algae, held up a tiny vial containing 1.5 thousandths of a liter of algae culture. Grown in the right conditions, he said, that culture will become 265,000 liters of algae within a week or two.
Alltech's new production facility will be fully automated and computer-controlled. It also will have a research laboratory and a pilot plant that can mimic production on a smaller scale. When operating at full capacity, the plant will employ about 50 people.
Algae will be grown in giant fermentation tanks, then air-dried into a powder that will leave the plant in bags. Production will run continuously, with estimated annual output of 6,000 to 10,000 tons of algae powder. The only byproducts of the process are water and gases, which the facility will recycle.
Outside of the facility, the company has been running a test project with East Kentucky Power Cooperative using algae to remove carbon dioxide and other substances from flu gas created when coal is burned to generate electricity.
"It's all about new opportunities and new solutions," said Dan Haney, Alltech's director of manufacturing, of Alltech Algae. "It's about sustainability for the future."
And it is all about business, something Alltech seems to do very well.