A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Nature’s Superhero

Algae helps us and the planet in hundreds of ways

By Barbara Krystal

Superheroes are dynamic, larger than life, unstoppable, face danger and possess a certain magic.

Algae would be nature’s superhero even if it did nothing but play its natural role of ridding our atmosphere of carbon dioxide – our kryptonite being algae’s fuel – but now it may also swoop in and help solve our energy issues. Algae-based biofuel may just be larger than life and unstoppable.

Certainly, algae are already magical. They are the reason for oxygen on Earth. Blue-green alga, known scientifically as cyanobacteria, is a 3.5 billion-year-old superhero: it grows on non-arable land, grows in variable climates, grows in salt water, non-potable water and wastewater, and grows quickly. All the cells of algae species photosynthesize and its ultimate power is the ability to fixate large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2).

But now, algae are being studied as a major new fuel source. Algae-based biodiesel is so like our current biodiesel, that it can be substituted immediately without modification to existing fuel infrastructures.

Modern-day alchemy is about using nature’s power to empower our lives. A major concern is power itself. How can we continue to power our lives without endangering our environment? How can we create energy independence? How can we stop depleting resources worldwide? Algae may be the answer.

Petroleum-based fuel represents approximately 70 percent of the total global energy requirement. Algae-based biofuel are non-toxic, biodegradable and renewable, and can lower dependence on fossil fuel. Algae are also used to remove carbon dioxide from the exhaust of power plants and to partially remove heavy metals and pathogens from wastewater. Algae have the potential to meet and beat the challenges posed by biofuels made of corn, sugar cane, and soy – all without competing with food crops and having a much smaller environmental impact.

There is a diverse wealth of algae species but all have high oil content. One species has the potential to produce 14,000 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year. The current yield of corn-based biodiesel is approximately 328 gallons per acre.

The challenge involves growing algae on a large scale, which can be done in open ponds with circulation, known as raceways, or in enclosed systems known as photobioreactors with elaborate pumping mechanisms and the addition of nutrients. In both cases, and under the right conditions, algae can be produced in massive quantities, giving hope for a greener fuel and the rise of a new green economy.

While the technologies are still under development, either method will require far less energy input than other forms of biodiesel. Corn-based fuel yields only 30 percent more energy than the energy put into producing it.

There are also myriad controversies surrounding corn-based fuels, from the impact of raising food prices to how they contribute to eco-destruction. Vast quantities of petroleum are also used to grow corn and soy and sugarcane, the three main sources used for biofuels.

So, can algae play the role of superhero, or is it folkloric myth? Two companies are betting on the former. San Francisco-based Solazyme has signed an $8.5 billion deal to produce commercial quantities of algae-based biofuel for the United States Navy. And J. Craig Venter, the man who sequenced the human genome, is on board with his company, Synthetic Genomics.

We all need superheroes. They give us hope. They make us want to be better. They fight the good fight. Algae are that superhero.


Algae in Your Life

Photo courtesy of Al Fin Energy

That superhero also comes with an added bonus. The applications for the use of algae are bountiful:

*Species of red algae have provided the gelling agent carrageenan, widely used in chocolate, instant puddings, milk, and creamed soups. 

*Agar, a colloidal agent derived from red algae, is a substitute for gelatin, and used in the making of frozen dairy foods, processed cheeses, mayonnaise, creams and jellies.

*Agar is also used as a stabilizing agent in cosmetics.

*Alginates from brown algae are used to prevent ice crystals from forming in ice cream.

*Blue-green algae, along with other green algae species, are used as a natural food coloring.

*Diatoms, a planktonic algae, is used as an abrasive in Sensodyne toothpaste and silver polish, and diatoms are also used in forensic medicine.

*Algae are used in Chinese medicine. Algae contains abundant amounts of iodine, an element required by humans and necessary for proper thyroid functioning. Now, algae are being studied to find out if they could be used in the treatment of cancer.

*Algae are used to wrap sushi and are an edible treat by itself.

*Vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B6, niacin, iodine, potassium, iron, magnesium and calcium are abundantly found in algae and therefore are nutritional supplements for people and animals.