Producing Omega-3 Oils from Marine Algae

Dec. 13, 2021
A broad automation project, for a joint venture by Evonik and DSM, enables initial annual production to meet about 15% of the industry’s current total demand for omega-3 oils.

A partnership that had its roots in the 1980s, when NASA went looking for technology that could be used to produce food in space, is now making a significant share of the world’s omega-3 oils from natural marine algae, helping to protect wild fish stocks from over-exploitation for their oils while enabling the growth of sustainable aquaculture. 

There’s a complex web of people, research, and technology behind this space-age story, which links the cities of Delft, the Netherlands, with Blair, Nebraska. These linkages produced Veramaris, a $200 million joint venture between Germany-based Evonik and Dutch company Royal DSM. Its goal was to create the world’s first high-volume facility to manufacture omega-3 oils from marine algae for farm-raised salmon.

DSM has expertise cultivating marine organisms and biotechnology capabilities in development and operations, while Evonik’s focus has been on industrial amino acid biotechnology using large-volume fermentation processes. Their breakthrough combines a special strain of algae in EPA and DHA omega-3—two fatty acids that have proven to be essential for good health in fish and people. The strain’s unique capabilities enable a much larger scale of production than ever seen before in algae cultivation.

While 35 years of research and investment made this venture possible, getting a highly automated factory up and running quickly was another challenge. The Blair facility was already making another product, so its production processes had to be maintained while new automation capabilities were added and other systems and equipment were upgraded to manufacture the algal oils.

This is the point where NovaTech, a U.S. company with extensive experience in process automation, entered the picture. “The project involved taking some of the existing plant’s capability and repurposing that to produce the omega-3 oil, which required new equipment and controls. At the same time, the plant’s automation system was upgraded. Basically, every arrow in our [automation] quiver was used, so to speak,” says Dwight Wood, vice president of global sales for the NovaTech LLC Process Division, which is based in Owings Mills, Maryland.

“This was a very complex, demanding project with a tight schedule and a diverse global team, so it was a monumental task to bring it all together and integrate it into an existing production line while separating out new equipment,” adds David McBride, automation engineer at the Blair plant. 

With the automation project now complete, the plant is able to produce enough EPA and DHA to equal what could be derived from 1.2 million tons of wild-caught fish each year. This initial annual production is expected to meet about 15% of the salmon aquaculture industry’s current total demand for omega-3 oils.

A highly automated process
NovaTech’s portion of the project included implementation and integration of a distributed control system (DCS) update and expansion; new applications programming; graphics for a high-performance human-machine interface (HMI); S88 batch management software; an updated real-time data historian application; and I/O migration from an older version to a new modern I/O platform, along with startup and ongoing onsite support.

“The key was implementing the full set of processes in a robust, reliable, flexible system. It also needed to be highly automated so the plant can effectively run on its own with minimal operator interaction,” explains Wood.

While many companies may begin with a standardized system, much customization often needs to be done as a project develops to tailor applications to specific processes.

“On a different project, we worked with a larger automation vendor, and they refused to cater to some of our special needs and instead required us fit into their mold,” says McBride. “NovaTech, a mid-sized company, was more flexible and able to offer us custom solutions.”

Although certain procedures and processes are increasingly standardized and automated, numerous key steps in and around the automation are still dependent on operator input or manual intervention. When the operator is interrupted to handle other tasks, off-spec product can result, requiring costly corrective steps or product disposal.

The DCS is used to minimize such potential operator variability while enhancing automation along with consistency and reliability. The system monitors key variables such as flow, applied temperatures, pressure, level, and material conveying/handling. While the plant was already using NovaTech’s D/3 DCS, this was further upgraded to display real-time process information in a high-performance HMI. Custom graphics, built using dynamic objects from an extensive library, make it easy for the operator to control the process, enter information and interact with sequence programs.  

Replicating a golden batch
“For this particular project, there were extremely stringent specifications to produce the end product, so batches must be performed reliably and correctly every time,” says Wood. “We worked with the customer to understand the requirements, and then outlined an automation strategy to meet their specific goals from a control perspective.” NovaTech also fielded a team of engineers onsite at the plant during the project.

Fermentation processes, like those used to produce the algal oils, can be especially challenging to control due to a number of variables. The process involves preparing vessels, incoming media and downstream tanks, as well as managing volume, time, and temperature to cultivate the beneficial microorganisms essential to production.

When manufacturers produce batches, particularly when utilizing fermentation, they are trying to replicate a perfect “golden batch” each time. Toward this end, the project integrated ISA S88-based layered batch management software, which is designed to help reduce cycle times and life-cycle automation costs. It also aids control and flexibility when slight recipe adjustments may be required.  

The batch management software integrates recipe management and the automation layer so operators can quickly and easily develop, scale up, modify and schedule batch manufacturing recipes as required.  

Comparing each batch historically against the perfect standard can also be an important element of maintaining quality control. To enhance this capability, the project involved an upgrade to the company’s OSIsoft PI System (OSIsoft was acquired by Aveva in 2021), a real-time data historian application with a highly efficient database. The application records data from process control systems into a compressed time-series database. This provides a manufacturing site with historical predictive insights in real-time.

“It is important to have both real-time and historical access to product data,” explains Wood. “Having the ability to quickly retrieve that kind of information allows companies to more consistently manufacture product of the highest quality and integrity. And if there is ever a problem with product in the field, it simplifies tracking and troubleshooting.” 

It was also necessary to migrate to a modern I/O system, NovaTech’s 8000 series platform, which is a remote I/O family that is highly integrated with the D/3 DCS. “The combination facilitates greater automation with better diagnostics, troubleshooting, and asset management capability,” says Wood. “With the configuration used, we can drill down to the controller, to the specific I/O card, so the operator does not have to go into the field to get the status of a specific card.” 

Since there were hardware, software, and engineering requirements tied into the project, NovaTech tested these in their facility before implementing them at the plant. The company also partnered with local contractor Interstates Electrical Contractors for wiring the new I/O, as well as for general support during startup and commissioning.

“Even with state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment, controls, and production automation in place,” adds Wood, “how these are applied makes all the difference in the success of a project.” 

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