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Algae for a Better World: Food, Fuel, and Fighting Climate Change

Exploring the Untapped Potential of Algae for a Sustainable Future

by Nishita Singh
0 comment 15 minutes read
An Asian woman in red ethnic attire holding up seaweed against her face with a pair of chopsticks in what looks like a dimly lit restaurant.
Algae for food isn’t a new concept | Photo by cottonbro studio

While researching for this article, I went into a little algae rabbit hole and came across these commonly asked questions on Google:

  • Can algae solve world hunger? 
  • Can algae reverse global warming?
  • Will algae save the world?

Short answer: If we harness it to the fullest, yes.

During my second year as a biotechnology student, I studied algae in detail. I learned how this little, green stone gunk was a super ingredient for just about everything—from pharmaceuticals to fuel, food to carbon capture, algae offer solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. I was amazed by its potential and wondered why this wasn’t common knowledge. That curiosity has materialised into this article. Read it until the end, and I’ll convince you that algae might just save the world!

What’s so special about algae?

Before I jump to the myriad applications of algae, you ought to know what makes it revolutionary. Well, plenty of factors. But here are the two main features that make it stand out amongst all other natural resources.

Algae can be grown on non-arable land

Non-arable land is land unsuitable for farming. It is the nightmare of lands: barren, infertile, unkind. But for algae, this makes no difference. Unlike plants, algae don’t need land. They just need water, air (mainly carbon dioxide), and typically also sunlight. So, you can use these otherwise useless lands and turn them into a raceway pond or set up big tanks to cultivate the earthen, mushy magic that is algae.

A U-shaped raceway pond brimming with blue-green water cultivating microalgae surround by grass and several trees.
A raceway pond for microalgae cultivation | JanB46, via Wikimedia Commons

Algae: one of nature’s most efficient carbon capturers

Since our school days, we’ve heard our teachers and textbooks yap away about planting trees for lower CO2. Well, I’m here to tell you that algae do it too, and they are much better at it. This is due to their rapid growth rates and ability to thrive in diverse environments, including those that are inhospitable to most land plants. Unlike trees, which take years to mature and reach their full carbon-sequestering potential, algae can grow exponentially in a matter of days or weeks, making them a more immediate solution for climate action.

Algae has a phenomenal capacity to remove carbon dioxide: It absorbs about as much carbon as all the plants and trees on land combined.

Brilliant Planet Co-founder Raffael Jovine

Algae for… well, everything!

If you’ve had sushi or ramen before, you’ve probably tried the wonderful Nori, which is a popular edible algae. Algae as a food source isn’t a new concept. They have been used as food in several cultures, and for good reason.

Algae for food security

If you’ve had sushi or ramen before, you’ve probably tried the wonderful Nori, which is a popular edible algae. Algae as something to eat isn’t a new concept. They have been used as food in several cultures, and for good reason. 

Algae utilise the sun’s energy very efficiently to produce macro-nutrients. Macro-nutrients are nutrients our body requires in bulk — like protein, carbs, etc. Some algae are up to 50% protein! For reference, our average lentil dal is about only 9% protein. For a nation like India, where 80% of the population is protein deficient, algae could be the messiah that bridges this gap.

Besides protein, algae also produce plenty of essential vitamins and fats for a healthy life. Sourcing them from algae is a far more sustainable option compared to traditional agriculture, as they require much less water, land, and other resources.

On a wooden table, on the left, there is a white unlit candle on a blue plate. On the right, is a bowl of ramen with a pair of chopsticks, a boiled egg, a piece of meat, garnished with Nori seaweed and spring onions
Algae is a sustainable source of nutrition | Photo by Taylor Flowe on Unsplash

Additionally, algae offer a wonderful vegan alternative source for Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are crucial for various aspects of health, including infant development, heart health, cancer prevention, and mental well-being. Plenty of vegan/vegetarian individuals can’t take omega-3 supplements because of their fish-derived source. Algae comes to the rescue yet again. In fact, many people don’t know this but most fish are rich in omega-3 because they feed on algae.

Algae for food — and not just for humans

The use of algae as animal feed is promising. Because of algae’s abundance in proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, minerals, vitamins, and other high-value products, they have been shown to have positive physical health benefits in animals and psychological health benefits. Supplementing animal feed with algae has been shown to enhance digestion in both ruminating animals (like cattle) and non-ruminating animals (like our friendly neighbourhood dog!)

Algae for Beauty!

Certain algae extracts have shown numerous benefits in beauty and skincare. One such extract is the chlorella growth factor which has demonstrated anti-ageing benefits. Some marine algae have also been shown to have sun protection properties.  

Fucoidans, a type of sugar found in brown algae, are shown to promote skin firmness, elasticity, brightness, hair growth, safety, cleanliness, rigidity, and gloss. Some algal products like alginate which are used in food as a thickening agent are also used in cosmetics. They serve as great moisturisers and offer antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Some algae are even natural preservatives!

Algae for Medicine

Many algal species like cyanobacteria (don’t get confused by the name, it’s algae, not bacteria, I promise!) produce biochemicals that are found to have antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral activity. So, they find great use in the pharmaceutical industry.

One such alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, was studied by researchers at UC San Diego in collaboration with Triton Algae Innovations. In 2020, they revealed that consuming C. reinhardtii can alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), such as diarrhoea, gas, and bloating. The algal biomass was then rigorously tested and approved as “Generally Recognized As Safe” by the FDA. 

a medicine bottle placed next to a metal spoon with a green powder in it
Algae has great potential in medicine | Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev

It doesn’t stop there. An algae-derived pigment called fucoxanthin was found to lower blood glucose levels and therefore is being investigated as a therapeutic for diabetes. The neural protective effects of some compounds from spirulina and the macro-algae alba are also being investigated for their uses in therapeutics for neurodegenerative disorders. Many alba also produce antioxidants, such as carotenoids and polyphenols. These may seem like big science-y terms, but I am sure you have come across them before. Carotenoids give carrots their colour and numerous associated health benefits. You must have come across messages on WhatsApp extolling the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for a longer life. Such reputation of this cuisine is often attributed to its richness in polyphenols. They also help protect against free radicals in the skin that can cause cancer.

As if algae weren’t naturally amazing already, we also have genetic engineering tools now which can enhance their actions and make them specific to our health/medicine goals.

Algae for Fuel

Algae is the super feedstock for fuel which may resolve the food vs fuel debate. What’s the food vs fuel debate, you ask? Let me explain that with the standard sugarcane example. Sugarcane has been advancing the clean, biofuel agenda because it is a great source of ethanol. Bio-derived ethanol is a much cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. So, why don’t we see it more in the market? Because when we have 8 billion mouths to feed and not enough food, isn’t it downright cruel to use food for our fuel?

Enter algae. You take the protein and the nutrients out of algae you get food. You take the fats and lipids out of it and you get fuel! 

Algal fuel is also a big step in the direction of circular energy. Unlike fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide stored deep in the earth into the atmosphere, algae-based fuels utilize carbon dioxide that algae capture directly from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. This carbon is then converted into biofuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel, through various processes.

Green moss being grown inside a glass bioreactor with a steel plate on top with knobs to alter the physiological conditions inside the reactor
Moss cultivated in a glass bioreactor | ReskiLab, University of Freiburg CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The key advantage here is that the carbon emitted when algae fuels are burned is essentially recycled carbon dioxide. This process creates a closed loop where carbon is continuously cycled from the atmosphere to algae biomass and back again as fuel, minimizing net carbon emissions. 

Scientists also genetically engineer algae to produce high starch levels that are then extracted and fermented into ethanol.  While current technology doesn’t allow for complete reliance on ethanol as a standalone fuel source, it is commonly blended into regular gasoline at concentrations around 10%. This blend serves to reduce overall fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

A zoomed-in picture of a green algae showing many circular patterns
Photo by Garvit on Unsplash

The World Health Organization (WHO) has outlined 17 well-defined Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And, now you know that algae significantly contributes to achieving 7 of these goals. Can you guess which ones? Let us know in the comments section!

Despite all this progress, we still have a long way before we chart a sustainable course in algae innovation. There is a critical need for technologies that support cleaner, greener fuels such as those derived from algae. Significant research also goes into ensuring the safety and efficacy of these novel technologies. Investing in companies driving this technology forward and supporting governments that prioritize such initiatives are vital steps in shaping a sustainable future.

But also, do exercise caution when supporting such businesses. While algae are efficient carbon capturers, the operation of large-scale bioreactors used to cultivate them and extract pure products can potentially lead to significant carbon emissions. So there is always a risk of companies greenwashing this technology and selling themselves as custodians of sustainability when in reality they are a net burden on the planet.

So, do your research and stay informed. 

Or, tune in to MindBrews — it’s essentially the same thing 😉


Word: Non-arable land
Sentence within the article: Non-arable land is land unsuitable for farming. It is the nightmare of lands: barren, infertile, unkind.
Definition: Land that can’t be used for growing crops. Think of it like trying to plant a garden in a desert or on a rocky mountain—it’s just not going to work.

Word: Omega-3 fatty acids
Sentence within the article: Omega-3s are crucial for various aspects of health, including infant development, heart health, cancer prevention, and mental well-being.
Definition: Essential fats that are really good for your health, especially your heart and brain. They’re like the superfoods of fats.

Word: Greenwashing
Sentence within the word: There is always a risk of companies greenwashing this technology.
Definition: The act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

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