Algae is Going to Save the World

With the proliferation of superhero movies out these days, your vision of the world’s savior probably involves a lot of muscles, silly outfits and gratuitous explosions. But what if we told you that algae is more likely to save you than a real-life Captain America?

Don’t laugh just yet! Algae, which is a collection of aquatic microorganisms, already produces about half of the oxygen we breathe. As technology advances, researchers and scientists are interested in just what else it can do. It turns out there are a multitude of potential applications, from keeping us fed to sustainable packaging. Not bad for a single cell.

Algae is particularly promising because it’s easy to grow at a rapid pace, doesn’t require fresh water and because it can grow where other crops cannot, making it the perfect complement to current food sources without compromising their land or water resources.

Nature’s most prolific oxygenators

What are algae, exactly? You’re probably familiar with some forms, from pond scum to kelp. The term “algae” covers a wide variety of algal forms, ranging from single-cell organisms to colonies of algae. Most algae live in aquatic environments. Most also perform photosynthesis, or the process of using light energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air to create their own food source.

Algae as food?

As more people are turning to a plant-based diet and beef farming has a significant negative impact on the environment, researchers are looking into sustainable ways to boost plant production for a booming population.

The key is that algae can grow fast. Space10, IKEA’s independent research firm, has created a dome that can produce huge amounts of algae—doubling its own size in six hours. That’s a promising statistic, considering the vast quantities needed to make it a viable food source.

If you’re on the fence about eating algae, maybe you’ve tried spirulina. This particular strain of micro-algae, which you may have consumed in smoothies and other health foods, is high in beta carotenes, iron, amino acids, niacin, calcium and B vitamins. In fact, it’s so high in these nutrients, it actually contains more than traditional vegetables like carrots and spinach.

In fact, algae doesn’t just feed humans. Researchers accidentally discovered that after removing lipids from algae for biofuel, you’re left with a byproduct that can be used as a nutritional supplement for salmon, shrimp and swine.

Turning algae into biofuels

Speaking of biofuels, algae might be able to help there as well. Although there’s currently no way to grow algae in the amounts that would be needed to compete with fossil fuels (yet) scientists are looking for a way to make it possible.

They’re currently looking into the possibility of genetically modifying algae to increase the amount of lipids, which are then extracted for biofuel. One ExxonMobil partner, Synthetic Genomics, suggests that if science and technology continue along current trends, it may be possible to manufacture around 10,000 barrels of algae biofuel per day as early as 2025.

Whether that biofuel will still be desirable at that point is anyone’s guess, however; they’re still used in internal combustion engines and release greenhouse gases. Given the current trends and incentives for buying electric vehicles, by the time algae production can keep up with biofuel demand, it might not be worth it. On the other hand, we can expect that the aviation industry will continue; algae may be able to reduce our carbon footprint in that regard.

Bio-based packaging

Biodegradable packaging is (rightfully) all the rage these days as we turn our attention to taking better care of the planet. Algae can help here, too. Some companies are already taking advantage of seaweed-based packaging, which is a form of macroalgae. Many experts see algal products and packaging as an answer to single-use plastics, which take decades to break down in the landfill and often require the use of petroleum byproducts—not the most “green” choice today, especially because many single-use plastics can’t be recycled.

What can’t algae do?!

As we continue to look for more environmentally friendly choices for food, transportation, packaging and other sources of pollution, algae is projected to be a hot market. Experts suggest that the algae market may grow up to $5.2 billion by the end of 2023, mostly in food and nutritional supplements. The search for sustainability isn’t over, and we can look forward to watching algae play a greater role in the global conversation to come.

Abhishek Chauhan

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