Most vertical farms grow greens like lettuce or spinach, but a facility in a remote corner of Iceland, run by a startup called Vaxa Technologies, grows microalgae instead.
The farm is on the site of a geothermal power plant so that it can run on the plant’s renewable energy. It uses natural carbon emissions from the power plant to help the algae grow. The geothermal plant also heats up the water, so the farm can hook into its system of hot and cold water to regulate the temperature of the algae. “If you take a shower in Reykjavik, the hot water in your shower came from the same power plant,” says Isaac Berzin, co-founder and chief technology officer of Vaxa Technologies (not to be confused with Vaxa, another vertical farm in Iceland that does grow lettuce; vaxa, in Icelandic, means “grow”).
The new study, led by a researcher affiliated with Cambridge University’s Global Food Security Research Center, calculated that the farm uses so few resources that it has no carbon footprint. The algae, a type called spirulina, also has a nutritional profile rivaling beef, with iron, all essential amino acids, and, because of the specific way the company grows it, vitamin B12. If someone eats 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the algae instead of 1 kilogram of beef, the researchers found, they could avoid 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of greenhouse gas emissions.
The startup currently grows 120 metric tons (132 U.S. tons) of the algae per year and sells it as an ingredient to be used in food or supplements. (They are scaling up to 400 metric tons per year and have the capacity for as much as 20,000 metric tons of production a year at the current location.) Locally, in Iceland, one restaurant uses it in smoothies—naturally blue from the algae—and in pizza crust, with an extra dollop of algae sauce as a topping.
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