If you’ve ever noticed a thin, green film over the top of a pond or lake, or found strands of slimy plant matter on the beach, then you’ve seen algae. Algae is a single-cell form of plant life essential to the health of ecosystems. Containing chlorophyll, which gives it its green color, algae is found in abundance in aquatic environments in both fresh and salt water.
Through scientific and technological advances, algae is now being used in surprising ways to support human health, develop medicines, and to create innovative solutions for society, like biofuels.
To grow crops, especially on a large scale, soils need to be enriched with nutrients and minerals that deplete over time. Common fertilizers include animal manures and synthetic chemical fertilizers designed to replenish soils with elements like nitrogen and phosphorus essential for plant growth.
It has been well-documented that algae, since it is a living organism, releases a plethora of vitamins and minerals into soils as it decomposes. Many fertilizers are not available that contain algae as an alternative to synthetic fertilizers, which pose risks to the environment and human health. As a fertilizer, algae has also been found to increase the water-holding capacity of the soils it is used with, making soils less prone to drought, erosion, and nutrient elimination.
Algae has been documented to help support human health when consumed. Products like nori, dulce, and other algae-based foods contain essential minerals many individuals lack in their diet. Vitamins and minerals like magnesium, calcium, potassium, iodine, iron, and zinc are all found in algae-based foods and supplements. Added to a balanced diet, algae-based products and ingredients can have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and anticancer properties to support long-term health and fight diseases.
Biofuels are fuels made from organic, living matter, like plants. The interest in biofuels has skyrocketed due to fossil fuel costs, both monetary and environmentally. Biofuels can be used in the same ways as standard fossil fuels to power machinery and transportation systems. Algae is now being used in biofuels to test its functionalities and to develop long-term approaches to energy solutions. In addition, leftover biomass from algae oil extraction in biofuels can be burned with a similar energy output compared to wood.
Algae has been used for decades as an affordable and nontoxic food additive. Carrageenan and algin, both made from algae, are used as thickeners in food products, cosmetics, and supplement capsules.
Products like yogurt, ice cream, dips, facial cleansers and vitamins are all likely to contain a form of algae-based thickener.
Bioplastics are plastic-like products made from natural materials. Most bioplastics are made to be compostable or biodegradable to combat the global plastic pollution problem. Common plastics utilize petroleum, a fossil fuel, to be produced, where bioplastics utilize renewable and natural materials in manufacturing.
Algae, when broken down or extracted, releases an oil that closely mimics petroleum, and is now being used to generate bioplastics that are nontoxic and biodegradable.