Chennai: It is touted as the revolutionary natural beta-carotene production technology that is set to break several long-held beliefs in the field of algal biotechnology. The process that is pending patent, developed by Dr NS Venkatesh, director (technical), ACL Chemicals (to be renamed Proalgen Biotech), produces dramatic yields of algae, considered difficult to produce.
Natural beta-carotene has the following commercial applications: (a) protection against cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, arthritis, stress reaction, cataract and other degenerative conditions; (b) dietary supplement; (c) food additive, colourant; and (d) feed additive.
So what is the difference? While the global majors like Henkel-Cognis, Australia, produce this antioxidant from algae cultured in seawater, Venkatesh uses freshwater. And as multinational companies use hundreds of acres Venkatesh's process requires just one-hundredth of that.
"We start our production process with freshwater to cultivate the algae. (The algae strain was found near Chennai.) The freshwater is added with proprietary ingredients to make water saline similar to seawater", says Venkatesh. This process keeps the organisms in water under control.
"The beauty of our innovative production process is its repeatability and the quality consistency", says ACL Chemicals managing director NS Bala Mukundan.
The existing technology, according to Venkatesh, involves seawater concentration, addition of nutrients and biomass maximisation, followed by carotenogenisis. Climatic factors, sunlight, intensity and others also play a significant role in carotenogenesis, which is not under human control.
When seawater is used other unwanted organisms present will compete to take up the media for growth. That includes at least seven-to-eight species of Dunaliella itself, that do not produce beta-carotene but grow well under the same conditions, he says. This also gets mixed with beta-carotene, thereby reducing the purity levels of the end product.
Further, with every fresh influx of seawater, new organisms will get into the pond and the nutrient content in water for algae to grow will differ. The other difference between new and old technologies is in harvesting. As the end-to-end process is under control and the growth medium is freshwater, one can have the production ponds anywhere and not necessarily on the coastline. The yield is also uniform throughout the year, says Venkatesh.
Mukundan says the domestic market for end-use antioxidant beta-carotene is around 10.5 tpa with a growth rate of 63 per cent. Almost the entire domestic demand is met through imports from Henkel-Cognis and others. There are two other Indian companies in the field Shantha Marine Biotechnologies and Parry Nutraceuticals with 1-tonne capacity each.
The global demand is around 1,430 tpa and the availability of natural beta-carotene is just 35 tpa produced by Henkel-Cognis, Nature Beta Technologies (a subsidiary of Nikken Sohonsha Corporation, Israel) and DSM, Germany, says Mukundan. The balance demand is met through synthetic carotene manufactured by Roche and BASF.
ACL Chemicals was assisted by the Technology Development Board and it set up a 0.72-tpa natural beta-carotene facility near Chennai at an outlay of Rs 3.1 crore.
"We have standardised the production process and with active domestic and global enquiries we are in the process of expanding the capacity to 2.3 tpa at an outlay of Rs 6 crore", says Mukundan. While this expansion will be over this year, another round is planned next year to take the production to 10 tpa.
"Our focus is pharma companies and for them it is an import substitute. While imports cost Rs 18,000/kg 30 per cent in oil (oil is the carrier and the price of pure beta-carotene will be three times more) our Natrotene will be cheaper by Rs 4,000," he adds. ACL Chemicals is also looking at export markets.