KAUST biotechnology solution could be key to unlocking Saudi food security

Two KAUST researchers work at the new Saudi Center for Algal Biotechnology Development and Aquaculture.

Scientists at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology ( KAUST) have devised new techniques that can produce nutritious microalgae in industrial volumes, which could interest countries looking to diversify themselves off imported feed products and promote domestic food security. 

Algae is recognized as a superfood that can be grown cheaply with just sunshine, carbon dioxide and water. However, cultivation at scale is difficult meaning its potential has yet to be realized. 

Scientists working at KAUST’s new Saudi Center for Algal Biotechnology Development and Aquaculture, have developed their own Spirulina and Chlorella strains of algae which is uniquely adapted to seawater. The innovation dispenses with the need for freshwater and makes the production of livestock feed cultivated from algae sustainable and economically viable. 

Saudi Arabia currently imports most of the raw materials it needs for livestock feed – protein, lipids, and carbohydrates – from countries like Brazil and USA. KAUST’s groundbreaking research means locally produced microalgae could ultimately become a substitute for the 13 million tons of imported feed materials that it is predicted the Kingdom will require annually by 2030. 

The Kingdom’s plan for algal cultivation on an industrial scale aligns with its Vision 2030 goals. These include increasing its domestic food security and decreasing its dependency on imported feed and raw food materials. 

Vice President of KAUST’s National Transformation Institute Ian Campbell said, “Algae will play a key role in meeting the Kingdom’s food security goals and brings versatile benefits that we can apply to other initiatives. Production on this scale positions the Kingdom to be a global leader in the field of algae biotechnology.” 

The opening of the new center marks the second phase of a project coordinated by KAUST Beacon Development and Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture ( MEWA), and is overseen by MEWA's National Fisheries Development Program ( NFDP). The Phase I pilot project, which began in 2022, demonstrated that different strains of local algae could grow and thrive in variable desert conditions, and that the Kingdom’s aspirations to develop cultivation were realistic and sustainable. Phase II will now expand operations on an industrial scale, increasing the size from 1,000 square meters as an algae pilot plant to 42,000 square meters, creating industrial or commercial-sized algae facilities. 

The new center contains specialized facilities and equipment for research activities, including the only applied algal biotechnology lab on the Arabian Peninsula. Initially producing up to 100 tons of algae dry biomass annually – nearly a fifth of the total currently produced in Europe – internationally distinguished researchers and scientists will be able to visit the center and help develop new technologies, processes and products that will benefit food security programs around the world. 

Phase II will also help the Kingdom develop its aquaculture industry, another key Vison 2030 goal. The Kingdom believes aquaculture has huge potential as a source of fresh local food and has set an ambitious goal of producing 530,000 metric tons (mt) of seafood a year by 2030. The center will promote Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture in which fish biowastes like nitrogen and phosphorus are removed from the water to feed the algae which is then fed back to the fish. 

The project will use captured and treated carbon dioxide emissions from a nearby generator to feed the algae, offsetting the project’s carbon footprint by an estimated 150 tons of captured CO2 per year. 

Algae Program Director at KAUST Dr. Claudio Grünewald said, “We have demonstrated that microalgae production is a feasible, sustainable and reliable technology for Saudi Arabia to not only produce raw material for feed for animals, but also to uptake CO2, bioremediate both fresh and brackish water and, most importantly, seawater and even produce high value metabolites that can be used in industries ranging from animal feed to pharmaceuticals.” 

The initiatives also help fulfil a third Vision 2030 goal which is to upskill Saudi Arabia’s workforce and diversify its economy. In addition to scaling up operations to ensure algal production will be a commercial success, the center is providing hands-on training in both algae and aquaculture farming to the next generation of Saudi specialists and professionals.