How algae could help solve some of the world’s biggest problems
Here’s a billion-dollar question. How do we transform our systems of food production and distribution, so that we can produce food much closer to where it’s consumed and therefore reduce food miles, food waste and our impact on the environment?
Tough one, right? Recently, we’ve been thinking a lot about the question at SPACE10, where our mission is to design a better, more meaningful and more sustainable way of living. As part of our ongoing exploration of the future of food, we’ve developed imaginative ideas such as Tomorrow’s Meatball — a visual rethinking of IKEA’s iconic dish, using ingredients such as insects, food waste and lab-grown meat. We also launched a hydroponic farm in our basement and started growing tasty, healthy microgreens.
Now we’ve started looking closely at algae. Yes, algae — as in slimy seaweed, pond scum, that ghastly green goo that clogs up our waterways. Consider this, though: algae contains twice as much protein as meat does. It’s also packed with vitamins and minerals — including more beta carotene than carrots and more iron than spinach. Which means it has the potential to become the super food of the future.
But that’s not all. Algae is a photosynthetic organism: it uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into useable energy—expelling oxygen as a byproduct. Microalgae in particular are among the world’s fastest-growing organisms, with some species capable of doubling in volume in just six hours.
Better yet, microalgae doesn’t take up large amounts of land, and can grow in non-potable water and on non-arable soil. The upshot? It can be grown quickly, almost anywhere, and in a way that reduces greenhouse gases, without putting pressure on the environment.
Little wonder that some have dubbed it “the future’s sustainable super crop”.
TL;DR: Microalgae is amazing because…
- It can be used to fortify food and combat malnutrition because it’s rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins
- It could help end deforestation because it could replace soy protein in livestock and poultry feed
- It’s a sustainable, green crop because it can grow almost anywhere on the planet and double in size within a day
- It could improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gases because it absorbs carbon dioxide and converts it into oxygen
- It could be used to clean industrial wastewater and prevent harmful runoffs because it can even grow in polluted water
Some strains of microalgae, such as spirulina, can be consumed by humans and other animals. In fact, spirulina contains more beta carotene than carrots, more chlorophyll than wheatgrass, and 50 times more iron than spinach. It’s packed with large amounts of calcium, niacin, potassium, B vitamins and all essential amino acids. It even contains much more protein than any other source of food — including meat. What’s more, our body finds it easier to absorb all of these nutrients through spirulina than other types of protein-rich food such as meat, soybeans, sweet peas and chickpeas.
Some scientists even say it can help reduce inflammation and heart disease, while others have studied whether it can help fight oral cancer and liver fibrosis.
Eating microalgae is nothing new, of course. Several centuries ago, the Aztecs cottoned on to the fortifying properties of spirulina — they called it tecuitlatl — and used poles to scoop it out of lakes in Mexico, before moulding it into little flat cakes.
Declaring spirulina to be the “food of the future” isn’t new either. In 1974, the United Nations described it as “the most ideal food for mankind”, while the Food and Agriculture Organization deemed it “the best food for tomorrow”. (Taking this to the logical extreme, both NASA and the European Space Agency have explored the benefits of including spirulina in astronauts’ diets or on future off-Earth settlements.)
A matter of taste
On its own, spirulina isn’t especially tasty. It’s hard to imagine large numbers of people piling their plates with it. But given its extraordinary nutritional value, it shouldn’t be ignored—especially if it is ever to become an important source of food for the world’s growing population.
In this light, SPACE10 invited Danish chef Simon Perez to explore imaginative ways to make spirulina taste delicious.
This summer, Simon has developed a number of recipes using spirulina — turning it into tasty crisps (which go very well with cold beer) and adding it to the dough used to make bread, burger buns and his Dogless Hotdog buns.
“Spirulina is astonishing to bake with. It makes the dough look incredible, and you end up with a hotdog that contains zero meat but is packed with more protein than a regular ‘dog’. It’s fun, thought-provoking and better for people and the planet.”
– Simon Perez, chef-in-residence at SPACE10
As well as using spirulina in his baking, Perez has identified other potential uses of spirulina in the kitchen. “I’m developing a bouillon with it, and you can also use it instead of eggs to bind water and oil, meaning you could use it to make vegan mayo and salad dressings,” he says.
All of which is a far cry from how spirulina is often used today: as a dietary supplement, added to smoothies across the developed world. However, it is increasingly being explored as a form of food fortification in the global South. Add it to a daily staple such as bread — or children’s sweets — and it could help combat chronic malnutrition. “Imagine adding spirulina to the loaves eaten everyday of millions of people in the developing world,” Perez says. “The impact on public health would be unimaginable.”
Down on the farm
Though spirulina is poised to become a nutrient-rich source of food for the many people, some scientists reckon that microalgae has an even bigger role to play in our food system—one that starts on the farm.
That’s because the majority of the world’s livestock, poultry and aquaculture industries use animal feed fortified with soy—which is potentially disastrous for the environment.
Soybean meal is the world’s largest source of protein feed and is generally used in animal feed. But growing it requires vast amounts of land, particularly in Latin America, which has a severe impact on ecosystems, wildlife, soil quality, and the climate.
Imagine the consequences for the planet, then, if we could switch the world’s livestock from a soy-based feed to one containing protein-rich microalgae. Might it help stop deforestation and climate change?
If microalgae like spirulina is so great, why don’t we see it everywhere? One answer is that it isn’t economically viable to produce it on a large scale.
At least not yet. For example, though it remains too expensive to switch the world’s livestock from a soy-based feed to one containing microalgae, scientists are looking to scale up the process and make it as cost-effective as current methods of producing animal feed.
Lars Jørgensen is a researcher at the Danish Technological Institute in Copenhagen (and an adviser to SPACE10 on the Algae Dome — see below). By growing microalgae in optimised conditions, he and his colleagues are exploring ways to use it to develop high-value products such as dietary supplements, cosmetics, medicinal products, and animal and fish feed.
“Both the biology and the technology exist,” Jørgensen says about using microalgae instead of soy to fortify animal feed. “It’s a matter of getting it to the right price point.”
A breath of fresh air
Where microalgae starts to get really interesting is when we exploit several of its properties and use it for more than one purpose simultaneously.
Remember its ability to grow fast through photosynthesis? Growing one kg of algae requires about 1.8kg of carbon dioxide, which is converted into biomass and oxygen. Now imagine if we could scale up this process and use algae at an industrial plant. Not only would it sequester carbon dioxide and produce oxygen — improving air quality for plant workers — it would also generate biomass that could be used in, say, animal feed or the pharmaceutical industry.
Similarly, imagine an apartment building equipped with algae that not only boosted hyper-local oxygen levels but also produced spirulina that the building’s residents could use to supplement their diets. Or picture kitting out bus stops with algae that stripped greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and produced spirulina that could be used to bake fortifying bread for malnourished families.
These scenarios may sound far-fetched, but an outfit called Cloud Collective installed an algae farm above a stretch of motorway near the Swiss city of Geneva, while a startup called Artveoli has found a way of getting air-purifying bioreactors into the home: through wall art installed with a biochip containing photosynthetic media.
In other words, while algae is unlikely to provide a substitute for other, technological methods of removing carbon dioxide, such as carbon capture and storage, under the right circumstances it could be useful precisely because, as it grows, it creates byproducts such as oils, food and animal feed. That’s precisely what’s happening at the Algoland cement factory in Sweden, which uses Baltic Sea algae to capture carbon dioxide coming from the plant before it enters the atmosphere.
Not only does the algae remove almost all of the greenhouse gases piped into it from the plant, it also can be used as an additive for chicken and fish food once it has been dried. As Quartz put it: “The science underlying Algoland is not novel, but what is new is how well it integrates the many parts entailed into an economically feasible carbon-capture plant.”
Water, water everywhere
A similar argument springs from algae’s ability to grow almost anywhere — including in wastewater, greywater and seawater. Industrial wastewater tends to contain substances such as nitrates and phosphates, which are harmful if they end up in the ocean—but happen to be a source of nutrients for microalgae.
Consider an industrial plant with both a concentrated source of carbon dioxide and a steady stream of wastewater. Now imagine using microalgae not only to treat the wastewater and reduce its harmful environmental impact, but also to strip greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and improve air quality locally.
Playing the fuel
No discussion of microalgae is complete without mentioning ongoing efforts to exploit its potential as a source of biofuel. In principle, microalgae produces seven times more energy per acre than corn-based ethanol, the main source of biofuel today.
This summer, after eight years of joint exploration, ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics, a biotech company, claimed their first “breakthrough”. Scientists at Synthetic announced that they had used advanced genetic engineering to double the oil content of their algal strain from 20 to 40 percent, without inhibiting its growth.
No question this is exciting news. Still, some experts say the economic case for producing biofuel from microalgae hasn’t been made — yet. In the meantime, several innovative companies are exploring ways to make products with a foam made of algae instead of petroleum-based materials.
Enter the Algae Dome
Besides reducing the cost of using it, perhaps the biggest key to microalgae’s success is showing that it works—and not just in the lab. Raising awareness about what microalgae is—and what it can do for us—is therefore crucial.
Which is why SPACE10 collaborated with three young architects to create a four-metre-high bioreactor at the CHART art fair in Copenhagen. As well as being a unique architectural and spatial experience, the Algae Dome was able to grow up to 450 litres of microalgae during the three days of the fair. And to showcase spirulina — the sustainable food of the future — we handed out samples of delicious spirulina chips created by our chef-in-residence.
Thousands of people saw the Algae Dome at the CHART art fair. Many of them explored it up close—entering the dome to talk to experience the improved air and talk to architects Aleksander Wadas, Rafal Wroblewski, and Anna Stempniewicz. Many more ate spirulina chips, and got their first taste of the super food of the future.
Ultimately, the Algae Dome aims to trigger conversations about how we can grow large amounts of nutritious food within our cities, reduce our impact on the planet, and, as Jørgensen says, “use biology to solve some of the world’s biggest problems”.