When Sofie Allert was growing up in Skövde, a small town in southern Sweden, her dad worked liming lakes. It gave her an early insight into the environmental damage that industry can wreak. “Environmental destruction is very real for me,” she says. “What we destroyed, we have to fix. This and Al Gore’s film got me to pursue environmental issues and environmental research.”
With this in mind, Allert started studying biotechnology at Chalmer’s University, a college in Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast. It was during her graduate work that she came into contact with algae and met Angela Wulff, a professor of marine ecology.
“I wanted to find a way to use algae in industrial products as a sustainable raw material, but could not get past the fact that we have long, cold and dark winters in Sweden,” she says. That was when Wulff told her that an Arctic expedition had discovered that algae could tolerate low temperature and light conditions, as well as growing under ice. “Angela and I were a match made in heaven,” says Allert. “I visualised the problem and she had the solution.”
Allert went on to Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship, where she began to turn her ideas and research into reality. “Very good research and many fantastic ideas will never enter the market, but just remain in institutions,” she says. “I’m as much an environmentalist as an entrepreneur. If we want to change anything, we have to live by the rules of the economic game.”
As a result of meeting Wulff and her time at the School, Allert founded the Swedish Algae Factory in 2014, a company that now operates an algae farm on the west coast of Sweden. By 2030, she aims to have 100 algae factories around the world. “The first product we are aiming to get on the market from the algae we grow is their silicon shells,” she says. “These shells are natural nanomaterials with completely amazing properties.”
Although algae live on the bottom of dark oceans and lakes, their shells are so sensitive that they can capture even the slightest ray of sunlight, enabling them to survive and multiply. When this became clear to Allert, she immediately saw an unexpected business opportunity in the solar panel industry. Tests have shown that by adding the shells to solar panels, it is possible to increase their energy producing potential.
“We are talking about a future energy revolution – scientists believe that in line with the current development of solar panels, diatoms can contribute an increase in efficiency up to 60 per cent,” she says. In other words, there are untapped treasures at the bottom of the world’s oceans – and not only from an energy perspective: “The algae are perfect for purifying water of toxic substances like nitrogen and phosphorus, but also as fish feed, fertiliser and fuel for fish farms.”
In recent years Allert and the Swedish Algae Factory have been showered by awards. Among them, she has been named Young Entrepreneur of the Year in western Sweden and the company has been awarded the Zennström Green Mentorship Award, instituted by Niklas Zennström, the entrepreneur behind Skype.
Nowadays Allert jokingly describes herself as a true algae nerd and believes that algae is an untapped resource for the production of future sustainable products. And given that algae absorb carbon at a faster rate than other crops, without the need for arable land or freshwater, they also have fewer of the industrial downsides of other sustainable projects. Instead, algae thrive in waste water or salt water.
“The fact that people haven’t taken better advantage of the potential of algae is probably only due to tradition and old beliefs and maybe also because the algae bloom gave them kind of a bad reputation, in that they are also seen as a bit disgusting and slimy,” she says. “But algae are responsible for half of all the oxygen production on Earth, so without them we wouldn’t exist.”