Taking the tunicate project to the next level

"We have only seen a tiny percentage of the potential that can be found in these slimy marine invertebrates," says biologist Christofer Troedsson at Uni Research Environment.

By Andreas R. Graven

Biologist Christofer Troedsson at Uni Research Environment. Harvesting of tunicates seen in the background. (Photograph: Camilla Aadland)

Troedsson believes there is vast potential for large-scale, efficient production and harvesting of tunicates, and this is the next stage for the researchers.

He sees even more potential in the use of the cellulose produced by tunicates.

While the nutrient-rich proteins from the tunicates are processed into animal feed, the cellulose – which tunicates alone produce – may be used in a number of different and exciting ways. 

"Our plan for the start of 2015 is to investigate the opportunities for new products and utilisation of this cellulose within several niche markets in our industry. Our industrial partners are ready to test whether the cellulose can be used for example in textiles, coatings, paint, building structures and medical applications," explains Christofer Troedsson.

He talks to us enthusiastically between mouthfuls of calzone and waffles with brown cheese, during a brief lunch.

"The cellulose produced by the tunicates has a much higher quality than wood cellulose, and provides a number of opportunities. Only time will show which industries decide to invest in this new cellulose," he confirms.

Efficient harvesting
He goes on to explain how last year was a good year for the tunicate project and to outline the exciting prospects they have for 2015.

"We are laying the foundations for an entirely new industry in Norway, and this takes time. There's still a lot of research to do, and in a way, we are only starting on the serious work now. In the autumn of 2014, Uni Research and the University of Bergen jointly formed the company TuniChor AS. We have now received support for two new projects that are both extremely important for future progress," explains Christofer Troedsson.

He is Project Manager for one of the two projects, which has now been awarded around NOK 3 million in support from the regional research fund (RFF) for West Norway, while the total budget for the project is about NOK 6.2 million.

"This project involves finding the optimal method for biomass production, with a particular focus on efficient harvesting. We need to find ways to handle a certain volume of tunicates within a certain timeframe in order to be profitable," explains Christofer.

"With a short production time and vast biomass potential, farming of tunicates is an extremely exciting opportunity for the aquaculture industry in West Norway," confirmed Chairman of the Board of RFF, Åshild Kjelsnes, in a press release issued after the funding was awarded.

TuniChor AS will be executing the project in cooperation with Egersund Net AS, Sperre AS, Scalpro AS, Uni Research and the University of Bergen.

The University of Bergen also submitted an application for around NOK 10 million via the Research Council of Norway's Biotek 2021 programme. The application was entitled Ciona nanocellulose for large volume and high value applications.

Eric Thompson is Project Manager for this project. He is a Professor at the University of Bergen and Research Leader at the SARS centre.

Utilisation of the cellulose 
"The main focus point for the project in the Biotek programme is the actual utilisation of the cellulose. The principal benefit with the cellulose produced by tunicates is that it is thicker and has longer fibres than wood cellulose. It basically has a higher quality, in addition to other mechanical and chemical properties as a biopolymer.”

“This provides vast potential for innovation," explains Christofer Troedsson.

The project is to be carried out as a cooperation between Uni Research, the University of Bergen, Nofima, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Zhejiang University, Linköping University, Bergen Teknologioverføring, AkzoNobel, Freudenberg Household Products and LinkoCare.

Confident of success
From the initial phase of small-scale and medium-scale production of tunicates in the facility in Rongsundet sound (located in Øygarden archipelago in Hordaland), which has the only licence for farming tunicates in Norway, the project team is now set to embark upon large-scale farming.

This transition presents a number of problems for researchers and industrial partners.

"We have to develop solutions whereby tunicate farms at sea remain stable during bad weather and storms, and have the optimal structure that also allows for efficient harvesting," explains Christofer.

Not least: The researchers have to be able to harvest a sufficient volume of tunicate (100 to 200 kg per square metre) in order to ensure profitable production.

They also have to find a solution for offshore harvesting which allows them to press out 90-95 percent of the water in the tunicates onboard a ship, simultaneously with the harvesting of tunicates.

"We are working hard to reach our full potential and I am confident we will succeed. Basically, the tunicate project is all about improved exploitation of marine resources. We need a more sustainable approach," confirms Christofer Troedsson.



The researchers who came up with the idea of exploiting tunicates as a biomass are Christofer Troedsson, Eric Thompson, Thorolf Magnesen, Jean-Marie Bouquet and Jiebing Li. Professor Christoffer Schander, who died in 2012, also took part in developing the concept.

The company TuniChor AS was established in the autumn of 2014, with Uni Research and the University of Bergen as owners. Based on the research, industrial partners cooperate with Bergen Tekonologioverføring (BTO) in terms of commercialisation.

Tunicates, or the Latin Ciona intestinalis, are hermaphroditic and sexually mature after two to three months. Adult specimens weigh between 70 and 130 grams. They subsist on all types of particles, e.g. algae and small bacteria filtered from the water.

Source: Christofer Troedsson and BTO

Dec. 19, 2014, 8:58 a.m.