Scottish bio-systems company Xanthella is leading a groundbreaking project aimed at boosting the use of renewable energy and improving the economy in remote rural communities.

Young woman at microscope

Growing algae in the west coast of Scotland

The brainchild of biotechnology expert Dr Douglas McKenzie, Xanthella was set up to develop cost-effective photobioreactors that use innovative light sources to grow algae. Dr McKenzie and his highly experienced team of phycologists, electronic engineers and process engineers carry out their pioneering activities from Argyll, on the west coast of Scotland.

“We develop photobioreactors for growing micro algae, which is used in a wide range of products from nutrient-rich supplements to biofuels, as well as in hatcheries for the aquaculture industry,” explains Dr McKenzie. “At the moment, companies import much of our micro algae into the UK. Our world-leading range of photobioreactors and flexible business models make it much more affordable and possible for micro algae to be grown here in the UK and by our customers around the world.”

Xanthella is based at the European Science Park, among a cluster of marine specialist organisations, which lends itself to a spirit of collaboration and shared knowledge and facilities.

“We’re based by the European Marine Science Park, also home to the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS). We help SAMS and they help us, and there’s a lot of general networking that goes on. The UK National Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa (CCAP) is based here too,” says Dr McKenzie.


We’ve been involved with HIE for a good while, and we find them attentive and supportive. Our work has been eligible for grant funding, but HIE’s support has also been more strategic – including the building itself that houses our facilities here.
Dr Douglas McKenzie, Xanthella

The west coast of Scotland has some of the best renewable energy potential in Europe, but developments are compromised by grid constraints – hindering economic development in some of our most vulnerable communities.

Xanthella is leading a ground-breaking project investigating the effects of light intermittency on the industrial production of microalgae and finding out whether this could offer economic advantage to communities generating their own renewable energy. The results so far are impressive. The pioneering Algal Solutions For Local Energy Economy (ASLEE) project is the first study of its kind in the world, giving Scotland a valuable lead in this field.

“Electrical energy systems are challenging – you’ve got to be using the same amount as you’re producing, so it balances. There are more and more issues around grid balancing in remote areas and the Scottish Government is keen to see communities take control of solutions,” explains Dr McKenzie.

“We’ve discovered a novel way that communities could benefit as well as address grid balancing issues, using high-value algae. In the natural environment, algae has day and night cycles – it doesn’t need constant light to grow. Therefore, it could use light when excess energy is available from a renewable energy source, and thrive on periods of darkness when that energy is not being generated. We tested the concept with one-litre prototype photobioreactors using submersible LED light sheets. Power to the LED lighting can be automatically and rapidly adjusted in response to changes in the electricity grid, solving the balancing issues.

“Previously, electricity was too expensive for all but the most high-value algal products, particularly as lighting systems were costly. But the cost of LEDs have fallen and, coupled with being able to access electricity at very low cost, is making it economically feasible. So this is really a double win – we can balance a community electricity grid and use the electricity at source, while producing algae at the same time.”

Following a hugely successful trial of the industrial prototypes, the Xanthella team is about to build the UK’s largest internally lit photobioreactor array. By June 2018, 16,000 litres of Xanthella’s Pandora photobioreactors will be operating on the Ardnamurchan Estate, using surplus electricity from their combined heat and power plant. If the results are as encouraging as the pilot trials then similar systems could be rolled out all across rural Scotland, giving communities and industry the means to solve local grid constraint issues and develop a valuable new type of manufacturing.

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Test tube with tech item in water

Talking about the place - Argyll 

“This is a great place to live and work for a number of reasons. The lines of communication are short, and decisions are made quickly. It’s easy to get to stakeholders, and there aren’t generally so many of them. Funding is also good for innovation and research and development purposes.

“I moved here in 1989 and thought I’d be here for three years before heading back to the central belt. But I’m still here! I was in Paris yesterday, and it really brought it home to me that I just couldn’t live in a city any more. This is also a great environment to bring up children – there’s no crime and obviously there are excellent outdoor pursuits. It’s not that far from Edinburgh and Glasgow, either – we appreciate going to the city all the more now, but we prefer coming back here,” said Dr McKenzie.

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Boats at the waterfront of the European Marine science park

European Marine Science Park

Find out more about this spectacular location from the people working there. Click on the image to watch our film.

EMSP website