Dinabandhu Sahoo

Location
Delhi
INDIA
First meeting
2010, Oct 11th
Last update
November 2016
Keywords
Microalgae, Seaweeds, Biofuels, CO2 sequestration

"Algae is the future as it has several uses and there is no other plants in the plant kingdom which will have so many uses as algae have, it has a big potential."

When we met the first time in October 2010, Dr. Sahoo was professor at the University of Delhi in India and Secretary of the Indian Phycological Society. For the last 30 years, he has led research in applied phycology, both on microalgae and seaweeds.

Dr. Sahoo has just registered a patent on biofuels synthesis from microalgae. He was also coordinating a project in the whole country for algoculture development and employment of coastal population in relationship with research institutes, NGOs and local populations. A few months before our meeting, Dr. Sahoo came to France and gave a talk at UNESCO about ocean acidification.

A documentary made about his work - “Chilika - the untold story” was also showed during that event: the movie presents how the development of a red seaweed cultivation (Gracilaria verrucosa) in Chilika Lake has helped to remedy to the problems caused by intensive shrimp aquaculture: local population were taught about seaweed cultivation techniques, and given the opportunity of a new source of income. On the environmental side, the water quality improved.

Dr Sahoo is the first Algonaut and his interview gives us a great introduction on algae. Dr Sahoo is now the Director of the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD) in Imphal, Manipur, India.

Introduction

I have been working in the field of phycology - the studies of algae - for the last 30 years. One of my most important job is how to transform the resource for the benefit of the common man in the society. So one of my major goal of my research is how to use algae for various purposes, for the rural development, for the benefit of the people, for the industries and to find out new innovations in algae. Algae is the future as it has several uses and there is no other plants in the plant kingdom which will have so many uses as algae have, so it has a big potential.

About algae

Algae is a very interesting group of organisms which has a very long history. It is one of the first organisms which originated in the system. As the demand for human’s food and others products are getting wider and wider, we have to look for new resources. Algae is one of the organisms which grows in the ocean, in the water, on the land and which is not so much of exploited, so there is a lot of challenges which are basically left. I like challenges, and it is always good to do something challenging and something unusual: algae present the most challenging system to study in terms of exploration, or in terms of invention to look for something new. That is why I am interested in algae. There are newer applications which are coming up from algae. The terrestrial system has been totally exploited to a great extent, algae has not been exploited. There are 2 groups of algae : one is microalgae and the other one is macroalgae. Macroalgae are mostly known as seaweeds and have several uses: we use them in our day to day life starting from brushing our teeth with the toothpaste or having food applications, textile painting, biotechnological applications and even in ice-cream. And of course we use seaweeds as food. But we have a greater challenge which is coming up: that is the demand for the energy. From where do we get the energy? Algae is one of the potential source of bioenergy : seaweeds can be a source of bioethanol and microalgae could be a very good source of biodiesel, with several advantages.

Uses and innovations on algae

Food

Algae has been used as food in several oriental countries, in China, in Japan or in Korea, mostly the seaweeds. It has a century old history. Similarly, the microalgae like Spirulina have been also used in Africa for centuries for its nutraceutical and other medicinal values. The demand for the algal food is increasing day by day. Algae can be a very good source of food, especially in countries where there is a high rate of malnutrition: people are getting food but they are deficient in the micronutrients. Algae can be used for food supplement to combat the malnutrition. That is very important, it will play a major role.

Environmental uses

Integrated aquaculture

Now coming to aquaculture. Aquaculture is the second biggest industry next to agriculture. Large number of people are employed through aquaculture activities. But the extensive and intensive aquaculture have damaged ecosystems so badly that you need some organisms which can basically remove the extra nutrients - like nitrate and phosphate - from this aquaculture system.

The best way is to use the seaweeds as a nutrient scrubber, which can basically stop polluting these ponds and remove these extra nitrogen and phosphate from the ponds. It is a very good thing and we have done a lot of work on this: you can see how successfully we have integrated Gracilaria cultivation into prawn and fish ponds in Chilika. And it has been showing extremely good results and the future lies in the integrated aquaculture.

Bioremediation

Algae is a very good candidate for bioremediation whether it is wastewater treatment, municipal wastes getting discharge to the sea, or various industrial effluents. Microalgae have been used as a bioremediation agent to clean this, to bind the heavy metals and everything. There are also macroalgae which can be used for the bioremediation in the sea or in the enclosed aquaculture system where it can bind the nuclear waste or radioactive waste. It is also a very good source for the artificial reef construction: behind a nuclear power plant which discharges a lot of heat to the sea, these artificial reefs with seaweeds basically take care of the extra heat. This a very good system which can balance the marine ecosystem. There are several uses of algae in the bioremediation. At the moment there are few species of algae which are used for this purpose, we need to find out more applications and more species for this particular purpose.

Bioenergy

During the last 5 years, algae have received a lot of media attention, in United States of America and in Europe especially, but also all around the world. That is mainly because algae have been projected as one of the best source for biofuels. Algae can be one of the crop which will not compete with food, those could be a very good source for the next generation of biofuels. Last week I was presenting at the Algal Biomass Organization meeting in USA where a large number of industries have invested a lot of venture capital money and a large number of companies have come up. Even the US Defense is trying to become self sufficient for its energy requirements for military. And the requirement is huge! And whether it is food crops like soybeans, corn, palm oil, we will not be able to produce that amount of biomass. If proper emphasis would be given to algae, it could be really turned into a very good source of energy crops. A lot of investment is pouring in: in Europe, the European Biofuels Association or Biodiesel Association have been trying very hard. But the biggest challenge is to get the right type of algae which can give a good percent of oil. Any alga which can give you more than 40% of lipids is a very good source of commercial source. Another challenge is that people are trying to introduce genetically modified fat algae: that is a point which needs to be debated. If the genetically modified algae is introduced to the aquatic ecosystem, what type of impact will it have in the whole food chain and in the whole aquatic ecosystem? This needs to be worked out.

What do you think would be the important actions to undertake in the sector in and for the future?

We must start algae education from the childhood in the school. That is the most important thing. We must teach the students at school about the importance of algae. Once they know the importance of algae at the school level, then 90% of our problems will be solved, we don’t need to tell the politicians or policy makers or scientists what to do about algae. Presently people think algae are completely useless and they do not know the uses of algae. You go to the sea coast where there is a lot of algae: they are dried off and decomposed, it is smelling bad so people think these are all useless plants. But once we tell them in a layman language that it is used in our day to day life, that algae cultivation can change the quality of life and provide a large number of employment, etc., then they come to know. This is very important so in my opinion we need to do a few things.

  • First of all, we have to create awareness among the people in various stratum of the society, that starts from the top to the bottom, number 1.
  • Number 2 : we need to put a lot of money in algal research and its popularization.
  • Number 3: a lot of print media as well as the electronic media should come and tell the importance of algae to the rest of the world.

And if you see China, Japan and Korea and other oriental countries, they are using algae in such a big way: you go to any department store, you will find algae. Here, in India, we are fine to cultivate algae in a big way and we use them for social development. Algae will be used for to combat acidification of ocean. On this program we had a meeting in UNESCO last May (2010) : how to combat the acidification of ocean? Algae can play a major role. Then we have already founded an Asian network for using algae to combat the global warming. This program is headed by Korea, I am a member of that committee. We are exploring how large scale algae cultivation in the sea could indirectly remove the carbon dioxide from the sea. As a result, it could combat the global warming in some extent. I have also filed a patent recently about an innovation: it is an innovative method by which you can capture the carbon dioxide, not only from the atmosphere, but also from the automobile and power plants. New applications from algae are coming up and we should do a lot of thing about algae to save our planet. That’s very important.

Speaking of education, how would you tell about algae to a 8 year old kid?

I will not tell anything about algae to you, first I’ll give you a scoop or a cup of ice-cream to eat. Once you eat that ice-cream, then I will ask you a question: do you know how this ice-cream is so tasty and smooth? Then I will tell that one of the ingredient in this ice-cream comes from algae. If you are having a medicine: in this medicine, you have a little bit of algae. Once you know the uses of algae, then you will be much more interested to know more and more about algae. As a 8 year old student, I don’t want to tell you anything about science. What I want to tell you, is that you are using everyday algae. The clothes that you are wearing and which has printings, algae help in textile printing. The chocolate that you are eating, algae is there. The candy that you are eating, algae is there, the ketchup that you are eating, the burger that you are eating… You eat a little bit of algae everyday in your life. If you eat something, you should care for it. That’s very important, then you will develop interest in algae. We need to encourage our students to study algae in a much more interesting way rather than having boring classroom, that’s very important.

About sustainable development

Sustainable development is a word which is very commonly used all over the world, starting from the politicians to the academics, to the social workers, to educationists, to bureaucracy, everybody uses it. But the biggest challenge is to practice the sustainable development. The requirements of the society, the requirements of the people have gone up, substantially. The lifestyle has changed substantially and our energy consumption has gone up substantially. At the same time, the water, the air and our food are also polluted. We need to have development in one side and also we need to provide a clean environment on the other side. The development is unequal: some part is getting more developed, in some part there is no development and in some other part there is unorganized development. We need to create a balance between the development and the environment, so that the life system on Earth can survive in an effective and balanced manner. That is sustainable development. We need to survive, we need to coexist in a peaceful manner with clean water, clean air and a good quality of life.

Are you optimistic?

I am an optimist, I am not a pessimist. I see the glass as half full, not half empty, and I see there is a greater challenge in algae, in commercialization of algae and using algae for social development. Slowly the message is spreading, although it is slow, but it is spreading. If you see in the algal biofuel research, in the last couple of years, more than a billion dollars has been spent, more awareness is coming in this area. But there are also challenges. I am very very optimistic. I started in a very small way but I am able to spread my message and very happy that we have organized the first coordinated large scale seaweed cultivation project all along the Indian coast. One of my greatest challenge is to create a blue level division around the Indian coast in order to create one million job. We can employ a large number of people through the seaweed cultivation, both directly and indirectly through the utilization of algae.

Why did you choose to work on algae?

I am from a small area called Puri which is 2000 km away from Delhi. I grew up in a coastal town, I came to Delhi which is the capital of India and I thought I would do something very challenging. In my first stage of research, I tried to do something on the higher plants, in the garden and in the laboratory but that did not excite me. I wanted to do something more innovative which can excite me, which can be more adventurous so I look for the whole system. I found that algae is the organism which can fit into my area and that can give a lot of challenges. You travel a lot, you go to various parts of the world, to the remote areas and in these remote areas you will try to explore. You meet new people, you see new destinations, you face great challenges, and then how to convert the challenges into opportunities. One of my most exciting challenge came when I tried to go to Antarctic to explore for the existence of algae. That was quite exciting to go to a new continent and look for algae. Then I traveled the world for studying the algae in various habitats and various environment. I came back to India and tried to integrate the basic and applied knowledge to the commercial part: 99% of the technology fails when it get transferred from the laboratory to the field. We have done some work, now it is doing very well in the field. We have bigger challenges ahead, we will continue to do that.

Pr. Sahoo’s team in Delhi University in 2010

Update! November 2016

In 2016, Dr. Sahoo is Director of the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD), an autonomous Institute of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & technology, Govt. of India) in Imphal, in the state of Manipur in India.

What are your current activities?

I am now more into Sustainable Development: I am the Director of the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD), an autonomous Institute of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & technology, Govt. of India) in Imphal, in the state of Manipur in India. Our missions focus on how to use bioresources for the benefit of common people and how to bring a change or be a change.

Some of the actions since our last meeting :

  • Dr. Sahoo has developed and patented a technology that can clean cars emissions using algae in 2012. In time, it could also generate the fuel to run your car. Check out the television coverage about this carbon eating car! (Credits: CNN and CNN IBN).
  • TEDx talk in 2014 (Credits: TEDx):
  • Cherry Blossom Festival 2016 for peace, tranquility, friendship and sustainability. Dr. Sahoo has led this initiative of developing the first Cherry Blossom Festival in India. (Credits: D. Sahoo)
  • Speech of Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Minister of Science and technology in India, in IBSD, May 2016.(Credits: D. Sahoo)

What about the evolution of algal research/industry? Any forecast/predictions for the next coming years?

A lot of new developments have taken place in algal research and application. Unfortunately now there are less and less people working in the field. We need to increase the number. Demand for algae and algal products will go up in coming years.

For more information

Website of the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD)