KeyLeaf: Industry leaders in microalgae extraction and process development

Widely regarded as one of the world’s top plant oil extraction and processing specialists,  KeyLeaf has been collaborating for more than a decade with major algae growers on the extraction, fractionation, and purification of algae-based oils and bioactives for the fuel, food, and nutraceutical markets.

“With 15 years of experience with algae extraction and processing, KeyLeaf has developed cutting-edge knowledge, equipment, and protocols that the industry can employ to fully monetize microalgae and help meet global energy, climate, and food security challenges,” says Dr. Thushan Withana-Gamage, KeyLeaf’s Principal Scientist for Innovation and Technology.

Formerly known as POS-Biosciences, KeyLeaf was originally founded as a research facility to study grain and oilseed processing and ingredient development for the food industry. After establishing a reputation for successful extraction and processing of seed oils, the company began receiving requests from major food processors like ADM,  Marron Foods, and others to help develop equipment and protocols for full commercial scale microalgae processing.

“Because of our expertise in oil extraction and processing, we developed a lead role in the global microalgae industry. One major factor that set KeyLeaf apart from other algae processors was our knowledge of how to safely extract and process microalgae’s thermal sensitive polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and proteins,” says Dr. Withana-Gamage. “Algal oil isn’t like canola oil or soy oil or sunflower oil – it’s very unsaturated, and if you process it like other oils, its PUFAs (especially DHA and EPA fatty acids), will be destroyed. Processors need to have special conditions and a gentle way of handling algal oil to preserve the oil’s DHA and EPA content.”

Another pioneering achievement underscoring KeyLeaf’s leading-edge status in the microalgae space is the company’s development of aqueous extraction - a water-based process for extracting oil from algae biomass without use of a chemical solvent. This extraction method is highly popular with a growing number of clients marketing algal-based foods, beverages, and nutraceuticals to clean label consumers.

Dr. Withana-Gamage says KeyLeaf’s biggest contribution to the algae industry comes in the form of process development for clients wanting to extract certain bioactive compounds from the algae, and downstream processing. Compounds often selected by clients for extraction include protein, omega-3 oils, and colored pigments having antioxidant properties. Downstream processing of oil side includes purification, de-waxing (removing wax if present), refining (to remove free fatty acids), bleaching out undesired colors, deodorizing, and winterizing (chemically enabling solid or viscous extracted oil to flow at room temperature).

“Microalgae could be an effective weapon for combatting global warming, as well as energy and food insecurity,” says Dr. Withana-Gamage. “It is estimated by Washington DC’s Population Reference Bureau that by 2050 the world population will climb from its 2020 level of 7.8 billion to 9.9 billion. To keep pace with the population increase, our food production needs to increase in parallel – a seemingly impossible task, as the availability of arable land for growing crops shrinks daily. However, with its rich protein and essential fatty acid content, microalgae will play a vital role in feeding the planet as it can be grown in bioreactors located virtually anywhere on earth, requiring only sunlight and CO2 to flourish, with its oils able to easily be extracted and used as  environmentally-friendly biofuel.

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