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Algae might be a secret weapon to combatting climate change

A handful of seaweed is displayed as masses of green seaweed, which at times emits noxious gasses, is seen on Kerlaz beach near Douarnenez in Brittany
Reuters/Mal Langsdon
Not just good wrapped around your sushi.
  • Ben Lamm
By Ben Lamm

Founder, Hypergiant

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

As fires rage in the Amazon, people have latched onto the phrase that the Amazon is the “lungs of the earth.” President Emmanuel Macron of France warned that “our house is burning.” Celebrities from Leonardo DiCaprio to Vanessa Hudgens raised funds to support the Amazon, and the hashtag #PrayforAmazonia went viral.

Our hearts collectively burst for the Amazon for two reasons: One was for the environmental and ancestral tragedy of watching an icon location burn, and the other for the fact that this 6 to 8 million square kilometers of forest plays a vital role in removing world-heating carbon dioxide out of the air. The longer the fires burn, the less natural air filtration the Earth will have.

But while the Amazon plays a vital role in global carbon absorption (and we should continue to try and save it), between 1994 and 2007, our oceans absorbed 34 gigatons of the world’s carbon through algae, vegetation, and coral. In other words, the trees might not save us—but the oceans could.

Solutions in the natural world will help right the warming wrongs of the human-made world. According to a new analysis by ecologist Thomas Crowther and colleagues at ETH Zurich, a Swiss university, there is enough room in the world’s existing parks, forests, and abandoned land to plant 1.2 trillion additional trees. These forests would have the CO2 storage capacity to cancel out a decade of carbon-dioxide emissions.

But other scientists aren’t as hopeful. They believe it could take hundreds of years before these new plants could scale back carbon-dioxide levels to the level the study suggests. The optimal time to plant trees to address our current climate crisis was decades ago.

Other challenges with forestation as a climate-change solution include the displacement of land used for farming, scientific and technological difficulties in measurement and monitoring, and limited public funding for carbon-beneficial land management, according to a World Research Institute (WRI) working paper. Planting as many trees as possible as quickly as possible could reduce nine gigatons of carbon a year—but it would also increase food prices by 80% by 2050.

Trees alone will therefore not save us from the current crisis. We must look to our oceans for solutions that are more effective and scalable. Say hello to algae sequestration.

Algae can be utilized in a number of ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Other than it being the most efficient solution for storing carbon dioxide, it can be easily used in a variety of other sustainable and commercial products or materials, from tennis shoes to steel alternatives to veggie burgers.

Algae as carbon sequestration

Algae, when used in conjunction with AI-powered bioreactors, is up to 400 times more efficient than a tree at removing CO2 from the atmosphere. That means that while we are learning to reduce carbon emissions and augment our consumption patterns, we can start to make big reductions in atmospheric carbon. When wielded correctly, it could make a city carbon negative without changing current production or consumption patterns of the city.

Trees and algae sequester carbon dioxide naturally. Trees “consume” it as part of their photosynthesis process by “absorbing” carbon into their trunks and roots and releasing oxygen back into the air. Algae replicates the same process but “absorbs” the carbon in the form of more algae. Algae can consume more carbon dioxide than trees because it can cover more surface area, grow faster, and be more easily controlled by bioreactors, given its relative size. Bioreactors can contain large amounts of algae and optimize for its growth (and related sequestration) cycle in a way that is easier than trees and takes the overgrowth of algae, dehydrates it, and ultimately puts it to use as fuel or biomass.

Algae as food

Rebecca White is one of the rising aglaepreneurs in the space. She is a research scientist at iWi, a nutrition company that runs algae farms in Texas and New Mexico. Their mission is to accelerate algae’s potential as a solution for the food security of our planet. Population projections show that we will need a 70% increase in food supply by 2050 to feed the planet, and a recent United Nations report warns of a looming food crisis.

Population projections show that we will need a 70% increase in food supply by 2050 to feed the planet.

iWi’s two farms host 48 ponds, each about the size of a football field. They harvest the algae and turn it into algae oil, which is sold as supplements. They are working on turning the remaining proteins and carbohydrates into protein products with a commercially viable taste profile.

The Novotel Hotel in Bangkok is operating an urban algae farm on its roof in partnership with algae startup EnerGaia, a producer of spirulina-based food and supplements. Founder and CEO Saumil Shah started EnerGaia after first working for GE on an algae-based biofuel project in Thailand. He left GE to start a company using algae as fish food when he saw more immediate commercialization opportunities. He then moved to Bangkok and shifted to human food after his fish-food facility was destroyed in the Thailand 2011 flood.

The company raised a Series A funding of $3.65 million in 2019, fueling his vision to transform the spirulina market into a sustainable, accessible, and profitable solution for future resource scarcity caused by the world’s reliance on water- and land-intensive food production. He is banking on spirulina becoming a staple food item that moves out of the health-food market and into the grocery store.

Algae as material

Dutch designers Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros use algae to create polymers that can be used in 3D printing as a replacement for plastic. “In principle, we can make anything from this local algae polymer: from shampoo bottles to tableware or rubbish bins,” says the firm’s project coordinator Johanna Weggelaar. “Our goal is to ultimately turn an industrial manufacturing process—a source of pollution that contributes to global warming—into a way to subtract CO2 from the atmosphere. Using algae as a raw material would turn any mode of production into a way to help the environment.”

Many other companies are already commercializing the output of algae fibers. One of the leading innovators is Bloom, a company that makes a foam from algae. This material is then used for shoes and surfboards, whose soles are typically made from petroleum. Some of their clients using the algae foam for shoes include Merrill, Adidas, and H&M. During the harvesting of the algae, the Bloom technology also cleans the water and puts it back into the freshwater ecosystem, resulting in 225 bottles of filtered water returned to the environment, and 21 balloons of CO2 kept from entering the atmosphere.

Algae as fuel

Algae can also be used to produce biofuels, which are fuels derived directly from living matter. This means it can provide a more sustainable alternative to carbon-producing fossil fuels, like petroleum. In fact, algae has been known to produce as much as 5,000 biofuel gallons from a single acre in one year.

The US Government first explored algae as a petroleum alternative during the energy crisis in the 1970s. It abandoned the project in the 1990s because they were unable to make it competitive with the pricing of petroleum. However, with the rising costs of oil and an imperative to find clean-energy solutions, both oil companies such as Exxon and venture capitalists are pouring money into solving the algae-as-fuel equation.

While progress is being made, the industry recognizes it’s a long journey to profitability. Algae oil extraction is a costly process and difficult to scale. The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley projected that development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production will require long-term research, development, and demonstration. Why not start now?

The challenges with algae

We need to consider alternative options that are planet-effective, not just cost-effective.

Scaling algae for biofuel production is not without its challenges. For one, algae growth is rapid and has been historically hard to manage and optimize. This can be addressed with new technology, like machine learning and AI, that helps to manage the growth process in order to ensure that growth happens through a managed and predictable cadence. Another limiting factor is the cost of implementation and the difficult road to profitability for many of these technologies. It’s been historically hard to convince people to pay more for something they can pay less for, and companies like Exxon and Shell have experienced this head-on with their stunt-filled algae-fuel concepts.

However, the time to be cheap is over. We need to consider alternative options that are planet-effective, not just cost-effective. We need more investible capital in long0term solutions that help to solve big problems. The current five-year investment cycle for most VC-backed companies is too short for addressing major moonshot problems like climate change. To make these solutions work, we need investment options that allow for more gradual profit return and longer-term planning, thinking, and execution.

What next?

Algae is an increasingly viable alternative for many costly climate-change solutions. Next-generation companies are recognizing this opportunity and investing now, but it’s also something that everyday people can consider as they look to reduce their impact on the environment.

Every little bit helps. In addition to going out there and planting a tree, partaking in an ocean clean-up, or working for companies that are making progressive changes for our world, look to algae as a potential food resource, consider the purchase of products created with algae, and support local and federal efforts to adopt algae methods of carbon absorption and sequestration.

The world’s problems can be solved by two things: collective action, and human-first technology that improves upon dated ways of doing things. Everyone can be a part of change and support those companies leading the way.

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