What Is Algae?
Algae is a type of photosynthetic organism that dwells in the sea. There are thousands of different species, so it’s hard to generalize about them all, but they’re typically found in areas that aren’t suited to agricultural production, and some of them can be eaten. It’s become one of the most buzzed about plants in recent years thanks to it’s many uses in food and energy. So what exactly is it about this organism that has people rushing to study it? Well, it has the potential to boost our health and reduce consumption of fossil fuel. So, let’s get the bottom of the buzziest organism since kale.
How Is Algae Used?
As usual, Japan beat the western world to the punch with their consumption of algae. In the island nation world-renowned for the quality of its seafood, nori and kombu are just two of the types of algae that have adorned meals for more than a thousand years. Sea lettuce finds its way into Scottish salads and soups while Irish moss produces compounds that are used in desserts and dairy products. Even in cases where algae isn’t consumed as is, algae-derived ingredients are used in finished products, like animal feed, dietary supplements and cosmetics.
Why Grow Algae?
Compared to most food crops, algae usually has much higher yields. What’s more, it can be grown in areas that don’t compete with other types of agriculture, so gains in algae production represent net positive increases in the amount of food grown. As demand for food increases globally with an increase in population, algae could be an efficient means of boosting total food production.
Perhaps the largest barrier to widespread adoption of algae as a food source is its unfamiliarity to western palates. Some believe it to be unappetizing or disgusting. Yet this squeamishness has no place in the modern world especially since algae is already used in many items that people have no problems eating, such as fish-oil tablets and protein shakes.
Algae as Alternative Fuel?
Among the numerous uses of algae is one that could revolutionize the energy industry: biofuel. Biofuels use organic materials as a source of energy. Algae can be processed to create substances that act as replacements for gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum-based fuels.
Any CO2 released when burning algae for fuel was previously absorbed by the algae from the earth’s biosphere, so using algae as an energy source is carbon neutral. Because it’s an essentially limitless and self-renewing source of power generation, algae fuel offers significant advantages over polluting products currently used to power our machinery. As Alberta Energy points out, the development of this type of fuel has been problematic, however, because the costs involved in growing and harvesting algae mean that it can’t compete with traditional fuels in terms of price. Additionally, the positive environmental potential of algal biofuels has not come to fruition because the amount of energy and carbon put into the process of cultivating algae often outweighs any of the resulting ecological benefits.
Nevertheless, test programs using algae to produce energy have shown some early success. Researchers at the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research were able to produce algae for use in biofuel while simultaneously using it to clean up pollution from a power plant. A one-of-a-kind residence in Hamburg, Germany, called the “BIQ” house, features bioreactors that capture sunlight and use it to grow algae. The algae is then used to produce heat while any sunlight that isn’t used by the algae hits solar cells, which convert it into usable energy.
Another project, by California firm alGAS, aims to produce algae batteries that could, in theory, charge up to 200 times faster than existing batteries. While this technology is in its early stages, if it eventually pans out, we could see algae being used to power our cars, homes and electronic appliances.
Algae has already demonstrated its nutritional worth over thousands of years. As the pace of innovation increases, algae, far from falling by the wayside, has shown itself to be adaptable to any number of new functions. Assuming ways are found around current limitations, fuel sourced from algae could join with wind turbines and solar photovoltaic cells to become a popular and cost-effective means of clean power generation. While this would be a boon to humankind all by itself, further advantages will come from the fact that many of the byproducts of algae growth have their own profitable applications.