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Our planet is facing an uncertain future right now. Climate change, growing pollution, and even food and water to keep us all alive. Could there be one solution for all of those problems? Let’s take a look at how algae can save the world.
What is Algae?
“Algae” is a term that applies to many different organisms ranging from unicellular planktons to giant kelp growing meters and meters tall. They produce oxygen through photosynthesis, though some species are heterotrophic as well. Unlike plants, they lack true roots, stems, or leaves, but they produce half of the world’s oxygen.
Algae can live in freshwater or saltwater, and even on land! For example, lichens that grow on trees and rocks are a symbiotic relationship of algae and fungi. “They can also endure a range of temperatures, oxygen or carbon dioxide concentrations, acidity and turbidity“. Algae multiplies quickly and can “double their numbers every few hours“. So how can algae save the world?
As a crop, algae is very easy to grow due to its hardiness (even in the desert!). Algae can utilize land unsuitable for traditional crops as well as saltwater, brackish water, and even wastewater to grow. This is super important because 70% of the world’s freshwater goes toward food production (crops and animals).
Algae are packed with nutrients including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and plenty of protein. In the same amount of space, algae can produce seven times the amount of protein as soybeans. While they contain so many nutrients, they can also filter out toxins, pathogens, and heavy metals from water by either storing or using them.
Climate change is a broad subject, but algae can help in a variety of ways.
Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is a greenhouse gas that warms up the planet. Like our forests, algae sequester carbon through photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is captured and transformed into oxygen and sugar using sunlight.
Various companies like Hypergiant Industries is building prototype bioreactors that could sequester many times more carbon than trees in a given amount of space. For example, Hypergiant’s Eos Bioreactor is only 63 cubic feet in size but sequesters as much carbon as 400 trees.
The Cloud Collective designed an algal bioreactor which was installed over a Switzerland highway to capture CO2 emissions from cars. The reactor is composed of algae-filled tubed that run along an overpass and suck in car emissions from below.
Algal bioreactors could also capture carbon before it enters our atmosphere by installing them in factories. When compared to other crops used for biofuels, algae outperforms them all in the amount of carbon they take in.
Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto are two architects from EcoLogicStudio who designed algae-filled curtains that help pull carbon out of our air. The curtains hold algae in tubes while the rest of the curtain is a clear plastic. Air flows in from the bottom, and the algae can then pull out the carbon dioxide and transform it into oxygen. Although not the prettiest site, the curtains are an innovative solution to reduce greenhouse gases. The pair are working on a more aesthetically pleasing design.
Algae are imperative to healthy oceans. Most animals in the ocean rely on algae either directly or indirectly as a food source. As autotrophs, plankton algae are at the bottom of the food chain. If their numbers drop, it can spell disaster all the way up the line to apex predators. Algae convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, which even fish need to breathe.
Like the lichen I mentioned earlier, algae participates in various symbiotic relationships with other organisms. One example is the mutually beneficial relationship between sea sponges and green algae. The algae lives on the surface of the sponge that protects it from predators. Here, it produces both oxygen and sugar the sea sponge feeds on.
Another relationship is that with coral reefs. By producing oxygen and sugars, algae speed up coral growth. With coral reefs deteriorating and bleaching around the globe, we need algae to save these havens of ocean biodiversity.
Fossil fuels like petroleum are non-renewable resources, and drilling for them causes harm to the environment. Oil spills are extremely damaging to ecosystems and are hard to clean up. However, algal biofuels could be a replacement for traditional fossil fuels.
Algae produce energy-rich oils called lipids which can be extracted to produce the biofuel. Scientists at Rochester Institute of Technology call the process “doubly green” since algae consume pathogens in the water and filter it while growing.
Algae can produce between 2000 and 5000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year. They can produce between 10 and 100 times more biofuel than other crops. The US is leading the way with algal biofuels with over 100 companies and the government investing billions.
While they can’t pick up litter off the street, algae can save the world by cleaning its water. It can also replace some of the litter through the production of compostable algae packaging.
As discussed, algae can filter out lots of unwanted substances from wastewater. They can remove 100% of ammonia, 88% of nitrate, and 99% of phosphate from wastewater. They also remove heavy metals, pesticides, organic and inorganic toxins, and pathogens. Algae can even remove radioactive materials from wastewater!
Microalgae have been used in biological wastewater treatment for over half a century and the process is widely recognized to be as effective as conventional systems. The process can take a few hours to a few days depending on the amount of nutrients to be removed. After treatment, the algae can be used for biofuel.
I’ve actually written an entire post about how natural substances can be used as sustainable packaging alternatives. Companies like Skipping Rocks Lab and Evo & Co. use seaweed to create compostable, edible, and customizable packaging solutions.
Skipping Rocks Lab designed a material called Notpla, which is used in the Oohos handed out at the London Marathon in 2019. The two companies have also designed sachets, food wraps, and takeaway tray liners using seaweed-based materials.
Learn more about these solutions by heading over to my Sustainable Packaging Alternatives post!
Algae for Humans
In addition to all these fancy technologies using algae, we can also do the simple thing and just eat it.
Records have shown humans have been eating algae since 500 BC, and today, 42 countries commercially cultivate macroalgae.
As discussed, algae is super-nutrient-rich, containing various vitamins, minerals, and good fats as well as a heap of protein. Algae is already used commonly in nutritional supplements. A 1978 study showed how algae improved the health of a malnourished infant.
One company hoping algae will be the next big food trend is iWi. The company uses long saltwater ponds to grow algae in the deserts of New Mexico. The company currently sells algae as nutritional supplements on Amazon, but they are also developing snacks and protein powders made from algae. They say the algae will not have much of a taste, not will the protein powder be green, so it can seamlessly be added to various products.
The problems with human consumption of algae lies with food safety regulations, as some algae contains toxins. There are many species approved for market, such as spirulina, and companies are using these species to pastas, breads, and even yogurts and ice cream.
In addition to benefits of eating algae ourselves, there are significant benefits to feeding it to livestock. The amount of land and freshwater resources used to produce animal products will significantly decrease. Algae is also cheaper than other forms of feed. Incorporating algae into livestock feed has been shown to improve the immune system and reproductive performance of animals, increased their body weight, and reduced cholesterol.
Finally, algae can replace artificial food dyes by acting as a food colorant. Algae can be used for greens, blues, and even orange (due to the carotenoids some species contain).
The last way algae can save the world is by conserving our water supply. The planet only has so much freshwater to sustain us all, and many people . By using algae on a large scale and reducing the use of other crops, we free up tons of freshwater. Due to its filtering abilities, algae can clean our water so it’s safer. Their role in purifying wastewater could also extend into our drinking water if recycled water for drinking is implemented in more locations.
With all of these uses and benefits, it’s clear how algae can save the world. We can clean our air and water, restore the health of our oceans, feed ourselves, and use it to replace fossil fuels. I’m positive algae will lead us into a greener future. What do you think?
Want to read more about algae? Check out these sources:
- Using Algae To Clean Wastewater, Make Fuel
- Eco-friendly ‘Algae Curtains’ Could Help Curb Air Pollution In Crowded Cities
- Soon, Algae Might Absorb Carbon Dioxide Emissions They Even Leave The Factory
- A New Bioreactor Captures As Much Carbon As An Acre Of Trees
- Relationship Of Algae To Water Pollution And Waste Water Treatment
- Algae Based Waste Water Treatment
- Algae In Food And Feed
- Experts Say Algae Is The Food Of The Future. Here’s Why.