I love algae. Seaweeds (Kelp) and green pond scum will be familiar to everyone, but there is a vast and diverse world of salt and freshwater algae that are not only helpful to us, but central to our survival on this planet. The full range of uses for this super micro organism are just starting to become clear.
Algae is a diverse group of aquatic organisms which have been quietly photosynthesizing for millions of years i.e. take in CO2 and give out O2 all powered by the sun. They in fact produce about 70% of the oxygen in the atmosphere.
It’s fast growing and the list of uses grows almost as fast – pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food and drinks. Because it’s so full of oil, proteins, vitamins and minerals, it offers a natural solution to a wide range of the planet’s problems. Here are 10 interesting areas of algae use:
1: Industry: Algae is currently used as a thickener in cosmetics, food and toothpastes, capsule casings for pills and its anti-bacterial capabilities are used in a range of pharmaceuticals.
2: Plastics and paper packaging: Algae can be used to create bio plastics and a pulp suitable as a cardboard packaging replacement.
3: CO2 emissions cleaner: Algae is able to absorb harmful CO2 emitted by nearby manufacturing.
4: BioFuel: Algae is one of the most efficient sources for biofuels to replace fossil fuels. 5,000 biofuel gallons can be produced from a single acre in one year compared to just 50 gallons from crops grown for fuel.
5: Waste land: Algae does not need to compete with traditional plants for land. It uses water that is not suited for regular crops and facilities can be built on any type of land.
6: Fertilizer: As an abundant nitrogen source, it’s an excellent fertilizer.
7: Wastewater treatment: Algae is used in wastewater treatment facilities, reducing the need for chemicals. It can utilize the harmful inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus in its growth process and breakdown bacteria in sewage.
8: Vegetable oil: Algae may produce even more vegetable oil than traditional plants when grown and harvested properly.
9: Food supplement: Unlike other plant foods, algae is a high quality protein that can support humans in ways that typical plants can’t. Its numerous nutrients including minerals and trace elements are essential for healthy living e.g. Omega 3.
10: Animal feed: Algae is high protein and full of micronutrients making it ideal as an animal feed. Spirulina is used to feed farmed fish providing the essential Omega 3.
It’s the last two areas that we are involved in at the moment. With the potential to address the challenges of feeding growing populations while reducing environmental impact, it’s exactly the sort of initiative that our business is set up to nurture.
So we’re doing just that: investing over £1.3 million in Firglas – a commercial-scale algae cultivation company. It’s almost 50% of the company’s £3m equity target and will contribute to the construction of two commercial-scale production facilities. As a business, Firglas brings a track record of creating valuable and sustainable process engineering plants. In the short-term, the focus will be on the existing markets of food supplements and fish feed, but longer-term the potential is far bigger.
A quick read of World Resources Institute’s sobering but excellent report ‘How to sustainably feed 10 billion people by 2050, in 21 charts’ shows the chasm we have to fill; there’s a 56% gap between available food today and the amount we’ll need by 2050.
The recent BBC report on ‘the planetary health diet’, devised by scientists from the EAT-Lancet commission, gives a clear view on what we need to be eating to reduce waste, improve health and feed the future population. The demand for sustainable food sources is only going to grow.
So we’re putting our money where our mouth is. Algae is one to watch.