11 ways aquatic slime could help save the world, and 10 reasons to start farming it

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Solazyme's microalgae magnified: these miniscule marine critters are the basis of cleaner, greener biofuels.
Solazyme's microalgae magnified: these miniscule marine critters are the basis of cleaner, greener biofuels
Solazyme

Not everyone’s fond of algae – whether it’s clogging up their waterways or wrapped around sushi. But as yet more cool uses for aquatic vegetables surface, even the slime-averse might become algalytes.

New research and ground-breaking technology and production processes are revolutionising the way the world views this astonishingly diverse, nutrient-rich marine vegetable – in particular, certain species of red algae, such as dulse; and microalgae, the world’s original oil producer, which also happens to be rich in macro- and micronutrients that benefit human health and performance.

Indeed, algae-derived products are poised to give petroleum, terrestrial-crop-based biofuels, grain stock feed, vegetable oils, animal fats, anti-ageing cosmeticeuticals and health foods such as kale and wheat grass a serious run for their money.

As successful San Francisco-based algae-oil company Solazyme contends, algae-based products are the way of the future, because they’re “better for people and better for the planet”.

Here are 11 truly exciting new (and re-vamped) uses for algae – and 10 reasons you might want to consider farming it.

  1. ALGAE AS SUNSCREEN

Could the sun-cancer mantra of the near future be slip, slime, slap? A team of scientists from Sweden, Spain and Australia, including an Associate Professor at The University of Adelaide, Vincent Bulone, have created a sunscreen made from algae molecules from reef-fish slime and a biopolymer from crustacean shells that blitzes UV-A and UV-B rays more effectively than synthetic sun blocks.

Inspired by the strategies of algae and other marine organisms exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation in confined ecosystems, the multinational team of researchers constructed new UV-protective materials comprised entirely of natural compounds from ocean-dwelling critters.

They’re not the first to explore algae’s potential as a sun shield – back in 2004, researchers from Mibelle AG Biochemistry found that a UV-A sunscreen made from red algae did as good a job protecting human skin from the signs of UV-A ray damage as did a synthetic UV-A sunscreen.

Prof. Bulone and his colleagues went a step further: they took algae’s natural sunscreen molecules (micosporines and microsporine-like amino acids), also found in reef fish mucous and microorganisms, and grafted them onto chitosan, a biopolymer from crustacean shells, to make the test sunscreen. Trials showed that the materials were biocompatible, photo- and thermo-resistant and highly efficient at absorbing both UV-A and UV-B radiation.

Reporting their findings in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, the researchers stated, “They [the materials] have the potential to provide an efficient protection against both types of UV radiations and overcome several shortfalls of the current UV-protective products.”

The team’s marine-organism-based sunscreen is entirely natural, sustainable, eco-friendly and, potentially, relatively cheap to produce – and it appears to do the job better than synthetic, possibly harmful alternatives.

“The same concept can be applied to other biopolymers than chitosan and used to produce multifunctional materials,” say the researchers. “Therefore, it has a great potential to be exploited in a broad range of applications, in living organisms and non-living systems.”

We’re talking eco-friendly heat-, light- and UV-resistant fabrics, paints, screening, building materials and more.

Girls apply sunscreen on the beach -  a new, marine-algae-and-chitosan-based sunscreen offers natural sun protection.
A new, marine-algae-and-chitosan-based sunscreen offers natural sun protection.
Liz Mc, Flickr CC, wwwflickrcomphotos11638547@N00
  1. ALGAE AS BACON

Yes, really. Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered and patented a new strain of the broad-leafed red algae known as dulse that when fried, tastes remarkably like bacon.

For more than a decade, OSU scientist Chris Langdon and his colleagues had been cultivating the fast-growing, protein-rich algae strain for use as high-grade abalone feed before they stumbled upon its surprising taste qualities.

“There always has been an interest in growing dulse for human consumption, but … the original goal was to create a superfood for abalone, because high-quality abalone is treasured, especially in Asia,” explains Langdon, a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU. “We were able to grow dulse-fed abalone at rates that exceeded those previously reported.”

Prof. Langdon changed direction on dulse thanks to OSU College of Business faculty member Chuck Toombs, who was seeking projects for his students, saw Langdon’s dulse growing and recognised its commercial potential.

“Dulse is a super-food, with twice the nutritional value of kale,” Toombs says. “And OSU had developed this variety that can be farmed, with the potential for a new industry.”

Toombs, working with a product development team at OSU’s Food Innovation Center, created numerous new foods in which Langdon’s patented dulse strain was the principal ingredient – among them a dulse-based rice cracker and salad dressing – and received a grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to explore dulse as a ‘specialty crop’. Prof. Langdon’s small crop is also supplying several Oregon-based chefs with fresh, high-grade seaweed, many of whom say it has significant culinary potential, raw and as a food ingredient.

Meanwhile, Toombs’ MBA students are developing a marketing plan for a new line of specialty foods and investigating the new algae strain’s potential to spawn a whole new aquaculture industry.

“The dulse grows using a water recirculation system,” says Langdon. “Theoretically, you could create an industry [inland] almost as easily as you could along the coast, with a bit of supplementation. You just need a modest amount of seawater and some sunshine.”

Though the economic feasibility of dulse as a human food crop has yet to be fully analysed or tested, its exceptionally rapid growth, high nutritional value and versatility as an ingredient (it can be used dried or fresh in a variety of foods and nutriceuticals) makes the new dulse strain a strong candidate for commercialisation.

“In Europe, they add the powder to smoothies or add flakes onto food,” Langdon notes. “There hasn’t been a lot of interest in using it in a fresh form. But this stuff is pretty amazing. When you fry it, which I have done, it tastes like bacon, not seaweed. And it’s a pretty strong bacon flavour.”

A new strain of the algae known as dulse tastes remarkably like bacon.
A new strain of the algae known as dulse tastes remarkably like bacon.
Oregon State University
  1. ALGAE AS SUPERFOOD

Seaweed as food is nothing new: various species of marine algae have been farmed on a mass scale in China, Korea and Japan for centuries, and dishes incorporating seaweed still form part of many Asian and some northern European diets.

Nori on a roll

Japan’s annual production of Phorphyra (nori) alone is estimated at more than $2 billion.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), nori is “among the most nutritious seaweeds, with a protein content of 30-50 percent”, about 75 percent of which is digestible, very low sugars, high levels of vitamins A, C, niacin and folic acid and low sodium content post-processing. Nori’s distinctive taste is due to large quantities of three amino acids: alanine, glutamic acid and glycine.

There’s substantial circumstantial evidence of the long-term health benefits of eating certain species of marine algae: the traditional diet of Japan’s exceptionally healthy, long-living ‘Okinawa octogenarians’ is high in nutrient-rich, low-fat sea vegetables, including several varieties of marine algae.

Nori-wrapped sushi.
Nori-wrapped sushi.
Jeremy Keith, Flickr CC, wwwflickrcomphotosadacti

La dulse vita

Another species of marine algae known as dulse, has formed part of the traditional diet of coastal peoples in Ireland and Canada for centuries but recently experienced a resurgence in popularity as a ‘supergreen’.

A rich source of minerals, high in iron, iodine and numerous essential trace elements with a vitamin content far higher than spinach, dulse has a multitude of potential uses as a consumable.

It’s already available as flakes and powder that can be added to other foods and beverages as low-fat, nutrient-rich and flavoursome ingredients, but dulse could also be processed into healthy snack foods or sold fresh or dried as a high-nutrient sea vegetable – the ocean’s kale. 

Apart from the capital costs of installing a commercial-scale greenhouse and harvesting system, dulse is low-input, potentially high-profit crop, selling for up to $240 a kilogram in dried form as a cooking ingredient.

One firm capitalising on dulse’s newfound superfood status is Nova Scotia-based Ocean Produce International. The company is growing dulse in tanks in greenhouses and marketing it as Sea Parsley, a food ingredient that distributors Atlantic Canada Exports claim has a flavour that “ranges from celery heart leaves to mussels to bacon or smoked oysters … serves as a natural MSG and enhances the flavour of almost any food”.

  1. ALGAE AS HEALTH SUPPLEMENT AND NUTRICEUTICAL

In recent decades, a profitable niche industry has grown up around high-grade marine algae farmed for use in health-food supplements and beverages.

Probably the best-known algae-based nutraceutical to date is a form of blue-green algae known as spirulina: farmed in Hawaii and, increasingly, across Asia, it is well established as a health-food supplement – though doctors do recommend sticking to certified brands to avoid contaminated, potentially harmful products.

Available in powder or tablet form and in pre-mixed smoothies and ‘green’ drinks, spirulina packs an abundance and variety of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals as well as protein and other beneficial compounds into a small, easily digestable package.

Blue-green algae such as spirulina could also prove a powerful immune-system ally: researchers are currently investigating the effects of blue-green algae consumption on the immune system, inflammation and viral infections.

Another strain of marine algae forms the basis of a potent new omega-3 supplement branded life’sDHA™. Its makers, Dutch nutrition firm DSM claim their new supplement is “a vegetarian source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids that provides important brain and eye benefits throughout life”.

The marine-oil supplement is made by taking microalgae cell cultures and growing them in fermenters that range in capacity from 80,000 to 260,000 litres. Once grown, the microalgae is harvested and processed to extract an amber-hued oil rich in DHA, commonly found in fish thanks to their algae-rich diets (though many people believe, mistakenly, that fish produce DHA themselves, it’s the algae in fishes’ food chain that boosts their DHA levels).

The supplement’s developer claims the new omega-3 fatty acid supplement has “proven brain, eye and heart health benefits” – including the power to improve memory.

DSM has applied for an EU health claim on life’sDHA for improved memory function – and though it’s unlikely to succeed (it would be a first for a nutraceutical making an ‘enhanced memory’ claim), it’s an exciting prospect in a world facing the health challenges of an ageing population. 

Meanwhile, Tasmania-based company biotechnology company Marinova Pty Ltd is making waves in the international nutriceuticals industry with its high-purity, organically certified fucoidan extracts: complex sulfated polysaccharides derived from brown seaweed.

Marinova assures its fucoidan extracts are safe, natural compounds with broad-ranging bioactivities that make them particularly beneficial as dietary supplements, in skincare and in pharmaceutical applications. Marketed as Maritech®, these GRAS-designated ingredients have been shown to have what the company claims are “potent anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties as well as their anti-aging, gut health and immune priming potential”.

Spirulina-laced health drinks such as this 'Green Goddess' smoothie are growing in popularity.
Spirulina-laced health drinks such as this 'Green Goddess' smoothie are growing in popularity.
Jennifer, Flickr CC, wwwflickrcomphotossweetonveg
  1. ALGAE AS HIGH-GRADE EDIBLE OIL

One of the latest uses for algae is as a high-quality, highly-nutritious edible oil.

In 2014, San-Francisco-based Solazyme, which develops specific microalgae varietals for use in transport biofuels, foodstuffs, cosmeticeuticals and more, has launched a brace of high-performance algae oils branded AlgaWise™ .

The “unique combination of performance, improved nutrition and sustainability” netted the company’s AlgaWise™ High-Stability Algae Oil an Innovation Award at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)-2014 Food Expo.

The oils extend fry and shelf life, have a high smoke point and boast an impressive fatty-acid profile with minimal saturates; 87+ percent monosaturates, less than four percent polyunsaturates and no toxic trans-fats – along with a far smaller carbon footprint than other plant-based oils. Solazyme’s microalgae, farmed in gigantic fermentation tanks, are ready to harvest in days – so the oil can be ‘made to order’ in batches and delivered in less than a week.

AlgaWise™ High-Stability Algae Oil is already being produced in commercial quantities with the Ultra Omega-9 Algae Oil expected to come on line by the end of 2015.

  1. ALGAE AS COSMETICEUTICAL

Algae’s properties as a stabilising and thickening agent, and the capacity of alginates in creams and lotions to be absorbed through the skin make it a useful natural ingredient in many cosmetic products (as well as toothpaste). It’s also a great foaming agent: cosmetics company BASF and algae-oil developer Solazyme recently collaborated to create the world's first commercially-available algae-oil-derived betaine surfactant. Commercialised by BASF as Dehyton A0 45, the sustainable surfactant can be incorporated into foaming products including shampoos and liquid soaps, is mild to skin and hair, has a conditioning effect, is stable at a broad range of pH and has excellent biodegradability.

That’s all very useful – but algae may have other, more exciting cosmetic properties.

There’s evidence to suggest that some species of marine algae show promise as natural ‘skin whiteners, while others may benefit skin health, retarding photo-ageing. Indeed, some researchers are touting algae as a vast, virtually untapped and potentially hugely valuable source of new and effective cosmeticeuticals.

Creme de la Mer window display, Harrods Beauty & Apocethary, London.
Creme de la Mer window display, Harrods Beauty & Apocethary, London.
Nikoreto, Flickr CC, wwwflickrcomphotosbellatrix6

If the popularity of pricey algae-centric ‘cosmeceuticals’ such as kelp-based La Mer are an indication of what’s to come, algae farmers may soon be raking in cash.

  1. ALGAE AS SUSTAINABLE HIGH-NUTRIENT STOCK FEED

Now there’s a way to shrink grain-fed cattle’s beefy carbon footprint – supplementing traditional grain feeds for algae meal.

A team of US researchers has shown that cows will chew contentedly on feed incorporating more than 50 percent algae meal – the dry husks left over after microalgae has been de-oiled and converted to biofuel – biomass that would otherwise be wasted. As algae meal appears to be good for cows, containing essential nutrients they need including protein, fat and fibre, farms need far fewer non-renewable resources to flourish.

Moreover, scientists have discovered that cattle fed a mixture of algal meal and their usual diet produce significantly fewer burps, meaning lower levels of environmentally harmful methane gas emissions.

It appears feeding cattle algae meal-enriched stock feed benefits cows, farmers and the environment. It probably makes the resulting beef more nutritious, too.

  1. ALGAE AS RENEWABLE BIOFUEL

Biofuels made from corn and oilseeds are becoming old-school with the arrival of clean, green algae-based ‘next-generation’ biofuels.

Over the past five years, substantial efforts and funds have been directed towards R&D into algae-based biofuels, much of it by US Department of Energy-initiated consortium the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB).

Advances in productivity and cultivation methods have brought algae bio-crude oil production costs down substantially but not enough, NAABB contended in its 2014 Final Report.

To be economically viable, the report’s authors assert, “Algal farms must implement algae strains and cultivation methods that maximize biomass productivity year-round … the use of major resources, such as key nutrients and water, need to be minimized and efficiently utilized [sic]”.

One company hoping to benefit from pioneering algae-to-biofuel technology is US-based Algenol Biofuels: its patented Direct to Ethanol® method uses ‘enhanced’ blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) to convert sunlight, CO2 and saltwater into ethanol; then turns the leftover algae biomass into biodiesel, gasoline and jet fuel. Algenol’s website claims it can produce four key commercial transport fuels for about US$1.27 per gallon.

Meanwhile, San Francisco-based Solazyme has patented its own way of producing high-performance algae-based transport and military-grade biofuels from microalgae.

In Australia, ‘green crude’ is being trialled at a $10.7m integrated algae-oil test plant in Whyalla, South Australia, launched by renewables company Muradel Pty Ltd, which deploys Muradel’s two-step Green2Black™ technology to get marine microalgae to convert sunlight, seawater and CO2 to a crude bio-oil that’s functionally equivalent to fossil-fuel crude – rapidly and sustainably. The algae ponds act as carbon sinks, capturing greenhouse gas emissions produced by Whyalla’s heavy industry, says Muradel CEO and Associate Professor at The University of Adelaide Dr David Lewis. The resulting oil can be refined using standard methods into petrol, diesel and aviation fuels.

“This is world-leading technology which can be scaled up exponentially to help steer our fossil fuel-dependent economy to a more sustainable future,” Dr Lewis said.
 
Dr Lewis explains the project in detail in this ABC-Radio audio clip.

Eventually, says the Algae Fuels Report – Processes, Technologies, Trends and Challenges, sales of algae-based biofuels could eclipse those of ‘traditional’ biofuels and even fossil fuels as global oil supplies dwindle.
  1. ALGAE AS CO2 ABSORBER

Plants of all types convert CO2 to organic compounds and oxygen during photosynthesis, ‘absorbing’ ozone-layer-busting carbon emissions (and the carbon tax they may attract) as they grow. Algae is distinctive in that it is able to recycle carbon emissions from fuel-burning and other production processes at an exceptionally high rate.

Some species of marine organisms are especially good at fixing atmospheric carbon and converting it into non-harmful organic compounds. One such species is cyanobacteria, a microscopic marine bacteria often referred to as ‘blue-green algae’ – but sharing only some genetic material with algae – that is reputed to be one of the most photosynthetically active organisms on the planet.

After removing CO2 from the air and using it to grow, the ‘blue-green algae’ can be harvested as biofuel feedstock, or dried and used as a natural fertiliser.

Already, algae bioreactors are being used by some power plants to lower their CO2 emissions. The emitted CO2 is pumped into ponds or tanks where algae convert it to organic compounds ‘feed’ on it, rendering it harmless. Bioreactors can also be installed directly on top of smoke stacks.

Forward-thinking agribusinesses with high carbon outputs might want to consider using algae-based CO2 conversion systems to save cash and the environment.

  1. ALGAE AS WASTEWATER PURIFIER

Algae has an extraordinary capacity to detoxify water it blooms in. It is used in wastewater treatment facilities, reducing the need for toxic purification chemicals, and on farms to neutralise fertiliser run-off. After employing algae ponds to remove nasty effuents you can turn the enriched algae into renewable, eco-friendly biofuel, organic fertiliser or animal feed.

There’s great potential to expand the use of algae-based water purification systems on-farm as well as in the livestock and dairy industries.

Algae blooms like this one are common in waters that have been polluted with excess nutrients such as nitrogen fertiliser run-off.
Algae blooms like this one are common in waters that have been polluted with excess nutrients such as nitrogen fertiliser run-off.
Wikimedia Commons
  1. ALGAE AS OTHER USEFUL STUFF

From ice-cream to mayo, algae turns up in a myriad everyday foods and other household goods. It’s a common ingredient in frozen foods, bakery items, baby formula, sauces and condiments.

Carrageenan and agar, two additives derived from species of red algae, are used as thickening, stabilising and suspension agents with neutral flavour in all manner of foodstuffs, including processed cheeses, mayonnaise, desserts, creams, jellies and frozen dairy products such as ice-cream, as well as pet foods.

Agar is also used as an anti-drying agent in breads and pastries to lengthen their shelf life, and to make photographic film, shoe polish, dental moulds, toothpaste, shaving soap and lotions.

So before you turn your nose up at slimy marine vegetables, know this: you’re almost certainly eating them already in some form or other – and slathering them on your skin.

Green oothpaste on brush: Algae is everywhere - it's even an ingredient in toothpaste.
Algae is everywhere - it's even an ingredient in toothpaste.
Arek Olek, Flickr CC, wwwflickrcomphotosarekolek

10 GOOD REASONS TO CONSIDER ALGAE FARMING

For such primitive organisms, marine algae species have huge potential as profitable aquaculture crops. Compared with most land-based crops, algae has several advantages:

  1. Compared with terrestrial crops, it is fast-growing.
  2. It can be farmed virtually anywhere on Earth, from ocean to desert.
  3. It is sustainable and renewable.
  4. It can be grown in greenhouses using recirculated water.
  5. It is easy to harvest and process.
  6. It is naturally rich in many nutrients valuable to human and animal health.
  7. It is a hugely versatile crop, useable in many forms.
  8. Growing algae benefits the environment, removing harmful CO2 from the air and toxins from water.
  9. The resulting algal biomass can be used as natural fertiliser or converted to biofuel.
  10. Algae-based products have a multiplicity of beneficial uses, opening potentially lucrative markets that, collectively, could be worth trillions of dollars.

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