Algae has gotten a lot of bad press in the past two decades. It smells, it’s slimy, it’s green, and blooms of it lay ruin to entire ecosystems when they choke the oxygen from ponds, lakes and rivers. But there is another side to this easily altered, ancient organism. Quite possibly algae has helped the human species more than any other form of life, and new developments in genetic engineering hold promise that it may fundamentally transform our world and prove to be panacea to many of our ills.
Nutrients from algae have been extracted and have constituted fortified foods since the 1970’s. In fact, when the first loaves of bread with algal nutrients dropped from planes upon the famined regions of Africa, nobody would eat them because they were green. A little bleaching later and we have the undetectable fortified flours that are a part of everyday life across the globe. We now consume engineered algal extracts in virtually all of the fortified foods that we eat, a dietary practice that rescues hundreds of millions of lives from malnutrition every year.
A dramatic food shortage was experienced at the turn of the century in no small part due to the sudden demand from biofuels derived from food such as soy-based diesel and corn ethanol. Scientists are now creating biofuels from microalgae through a process called catalytic gasification, wherein supercritical water is used on algal biomass to produce methane, an almost completely clean-burning fuel. The algae removes the global warming gas CO2 from the atmosphere where it is stored and can be disposed of safely. Catalytic gasification is able to capture the carbon and store it, so that the algae continues to capture more greenhouse gases than it releases after it is heated.
And it’s not just scientists that are interested in the potential of algae. Exxon-Mobil recently invested $600M into the the lucrative possibilities in algal oils as a fuel source and ultimately as a means of replacing petroleum, and Dow has partnered with Algenol to build a $50M algal biofuel plant in Florida that will sell biodiesel at $1.00-1.25 a gallon.
There is additional evidence of an Egyptian algae called Microcoleus steenstrupii that can remove toxins ranging from mercury to lead from rivers where they contaminate our food supply. Another species of algae from the Nile is able to break down oilspills while at the same time isolating the toxic pollutants that they unleash.
Algae contributes a cleaner solution to industries ranging from textiles (fibers can be harnessed from algae that are as soft as silk) to complex organic flavinoids (ever had a chocolate-lavender-green tea cookie?). In the coming years, don’t be surprised to see algal processing centers being built across the country for a wide variety of applications.