Algae have not always enjoyed the best reputation. But times have changed. Some people consider the plants to be the great hope for the 21st century. This is largely due to the organisms’ many different uses: in cosmetics and medicines as well as a food and energy source. It is no small advantage that the plants grow quickly, do not deprive valuable crops of acreage, do without fertilizer, and don’t compete with humans for drinking water.
Valued as a Healthy Food
Algae have a long history as a food, especially in East Asia. The plants have been on the menu in China for more than 4,000 years. They are also a traditional food in Japan and South Korea. The United Kingdom and France are well aware of their appeal at mealtime, even though other countries are only beginning to warm to them. Algae are popular in salads and as enhancements to pasta and fish dishes. Pieces of nori algae are used to shape sushi. It is likely that even those who have never knowingly consumed algae have eaten foods containing substances from the aquatic plants. For example, they are used in puddings, ice cream and yogurt as binders and thickeners.
It certainly makes sense to consume algae. It is said that 1 kilogram of the plants contains the active ingredients of 100,000 liters of seawater. In any case, algae are low in calories, contain many nutrients and are rich in vitamins. Their large quantity of vitamin B12 makes them a good meat substitute for vegetarians. In light of the continued overfishing in the world’s oceans, algae are also becoming more important as a fish substitute. The iodine in these plants is grounds for caution, however. Since the amount is often high, products containing algae should only be eaten in moderation. On the other hand, their abundant dietary fiber makes for a filling meal, and they contain key omega-3 fatty acids. These attributes qualify algae as a much-sought-after superfood. Varieties are available as a dietary supplement in powder, capsule and tablet form. Today even algae beer and algae soft drinks are being sold. The plants also have a moisturizing effect, making them a valuable ingredient in skincare products. Medical science is deeply involved with algae research since the plants contain active ingredients that combat viruses, bacteria and fungi.
Good for the Climate
Algae are also important for the environment. They use photosynthesis, binding up carbon dioxide and supplying their surroundings with oxygen. They are even said to provide half of the earth’s supply of the life-giving element. Algae flourish under warm conditions with abundant sunlight. But if the algae growth is excessive, bacteria break them down, drawing oxygen from the water – to the detriment of other water dwellers. If the problems stay within limits, algae occupy the very first link of the food chain. Without them, oceans would be desolate expanses. Incidentally, as humanity embraces algae, they can use less plastic since the plants can be used to make cups and plates.
An Abundance of Power
But all this doesn’t come close to exhausting algae’s potential. The plants are considered a serious candidate to be the fuel source of the future. The oil stored in the plants’ cells can be transformed into aircraft fuel: A real-life test has shown that a plane can take off using kerosene made from algae oil. Algae are also suited to the production of biogas and hydrogen. Israeli researchers have derived four times the amount of hydrogen from genetically modified algae than the amount available from natural varieties.
Chinese and German researchers want to optimize algae strains for the extraction of hydrogen and biofuel. The United Kingdom is meanwhile exploring how and whether it can position itself as a center of aquafarming. The early efforts are focusing on the production of bio energy from seaweed. The use of the biogas could be climate-friendly, and the digestate could be processed into fertilizer. This all shows that there is more to algae than you might think at first glance.