Algae live everywhere – oceans, lakes, ponds, and even in the snow on mountain tops! All they need is some moisture and a few nutrients to thrive.
In this lesson, we will explore algae and its many uses.
Algae are a vast, diverse collection of organisms, but they can be divided into two major groups: macroalgae, which are algae large enough to see with the naked eye, and microalgae, which are algae so small they must be viewed through a microscope. Algae are photosynthetic, meaning they can use the sun’s energy to produce sugars (and oxygen as a waste product), though unlike true plants, they don’t have roots, leaves, stems, or vascular tissue.
But aside from providing us with oxygen, algae have many more applications useful to humans.
Algae as Fuel
Algal cells naturally produce different byproducts as part of their natural metabolism. Researchers have collected and isolated thousands of different species and tested them for their production of energy metabolites. Scientists have also studied the best way to grow algae – the optimum light, water, and nutrient to get the most production from the algal cells.
Through such work, researchers have found many species that can produce fuels.The idea of using algae as fuel isn’t a new one. Studies were conducted as early as the 1950s, looking at the production of methane from algae. In the 1970s, the energy crisis spurred more research in not only methane production, but also hydrogen from algae.
In the 1980s, research efforts shifted to oil production from algae. Today, oil produced from algae, called biofuel, has been dominating the research and development front. Scientists are interested in algal biofuels because they are renewable, can be created relatively easily within bioreactors, and can substitute fossil fuels.
Algae as Food
Have you ever had sushi? If so, you’ve eaten algae by eating the seaweed wrapping.
Algae have been used as a food source for thousands of years by a variety of cultures, but researchers and investors are taking another look at this green food source for a much bigger piece of the world’s food market. As our world’s population increases and development makes land suitable for farming more scarce, algal cultivation for food becomes more and more appealing. Algal cultivation can occur year-round and yield a high-protein product that can be used in a myriad of foods – not only for humans, but also as an animal food source.This food source is both renewable and sustainable, which means it can be produced at a maintainable level.
Raising livestock for food takes up valuable limited resources in the form of land and energy. Algae, on the other hand, can be grown in a variety of places in vertical tanks without utilizing large tracts of land.
Algae as Plastics
Plastics are traditionally derived from petroleum. Since petroleum is a fossil fuel and is limited in its availability, long-term production of plastics via this process is not sustainable. Research and development teams around the world are racing to create a viable method for producing plastics from algae. In fall 2014, an algae-to-plastic manufacturing facility opened in Mississippi that will not only create plastics but will also research and test the process and products.
Other Uses of Algae
Beyond fuel and food, algae has been utilized for everything from soil fertilizer, filtering materials, and pest control to sewage treatment components.
Algae have been and continue to be widely applied the medical field, both as a pharmaceuticals and for agar used in laboratories. In addition, climate scientists are looking into the possibility of using algae to uptake large amounts of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere to combat global climate change.Algae are of particular interest to researchers for several reasons. They are vigorous organisms that utilize carbon dioxide (which we have in excess), and they have a high output of products in relation to their size. This, coupled with a fast growth rate, makes algae a prime subject for research.
Advances in genetics have added the potential to alter algae’s genetic code for even faster production rates.
What Lies Ahead?
In a 2015 industry survey, the Algae Biomass Organization concluded that research and development of algal products, such as fuels, feed, and plastics, will be advanced enough to be competitively priced with non-algal products within 10 years, if not sooner. So, you could soon be heading to the pump to fill up your tank with gas produced from the renewable source of algae instead of fossil fuels.
From our food to our fuel, algae may become a regular component of our lives in the not-so-distant future. Algae can be cultivated as a food source on a large scale, serving as a food supplement for humans or as feed for livestock. Algae may also soon be used as a petroleum replacement to fuel vehicles and as a source of plastic.