Algae brings up images of icky stuff on trees and fountains in need of cleaning. Algae isn't even a proper classification, just an informal term for a group of photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms. That is, the organisms turn light into food, and their cells have a nucleus enclosed in membranes. They are extremely important to life on earth. But what are they?
Algae are aquatic organisms that lack true roots, leaves, stems, and vascular systems, yet produce oxygen via photosynthesis. They range in size from .2 mm (picoplankton) to 60 meters (giant kelp). They can be found in freshwater or saltwater, in extremely salty environments like the Dead Sea, and even very cold ones, like under polar ice. Some algae are even found on land, sometimes on trees or animal fur.
About half the earth's oxygen is produced by algae. However, that's not the only way it's useful to us. Alga-culture is the farming of algae. People cultivate it for many reasons:
- Spirulina, the algae that is sometimes added to smoothies and protein bars, is grown in farms all around the world. Carrageenan and agar are algae that are used in food. They can be found in ice cream, nut milks, yogurt, jams, jellies, and other things that need thickeners. Carrageenan is also a common ingredient in toothpaste.
- While some algaes are used as food dyes and colorants, others are used to color non-edible things, like paper, cosmetics, and clothing. Phycocyanin and phycoerythrin pigments are used in cancer research because of their fluorescent properties.
- The stuff is also good for feeding animals. The micro-algal animal feeding business brings in 300 million a year in the US. Algae are also used in aquaculture, to feed the sea plants and animals being raised.
- Algae is being used to make self-repairing concrete, called bioconcrete. Bacillus pasteruii is a bacteria that gets mixed into concrete. The bacteria produce a hard substance that fills in tiny cracks in the concrete.
- Bioplastic is a plastic-like material made from algae and vegetable oil. Or algae and glycerol, like in the make-your-own-bioplastic recipe featured at the end of this article. Bioplastic is much more eco-friendly than regular plastic because it requires less energy to produce. It's easier to recycle than regular plastic. It's also non-toxic.
I learned a lot of cool things while writing this piece. I already knew that it was a food additive, but that was about it. Now I think of it as the Next Big Thing in food, considering the lack of resources it takes to grow this nutritious stuff. I'm also very interested in seeing how far we can take bioplastics. The environmentally-friendliness appeals to me, as does ease of recycling. Who'd have thought pond scum could be the wave of the future?