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While entering the third decade of the 21st century, many of us have finally acknowledged that climate change is real and it is happening right now. High post-industrial rates of greenhouse gas emissions have caught up with us. We are now facing the consequences of our constant emissions, with the fear that worse is on the way. Scientists, climate experts, and researchers have proposed many solutions to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Growing algae in large quantities is one of them.
Carbon dioxide accounts for 76% of greenhouse gas emissions. As algae grow, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It converts it into biomass and oxygen via photosynthesis. Algae perform the conversion of carbon dioxide into biomass at relatively fast rates. On average, 1 kg of algae absorbs 1.87 kg of carbon dioxide daily. Therefore, one acre of algae would remove 2.7 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere daily. Thus, algae sequester carbon through photosynthesis. After the end of its photosynthetic purpose, we can harvest the algae and use it to make environmentally-friendly biofuel.
At this point, you must be wondering, “But won’t planting trees and afforestation efforts draw down the same amount of carbon as algae?” Sadly, the answer is no. The optimal time to plant trees to overcome our current climate crisis was decades ago. It could take hundreds of years for the trees we plant today to draw down amounts of carbon dioxide that will slow down climate change and global warming. In this article, we’re going to explore the role of algae in carbon capture.
1. Algae as carbon sequestration
The role of algae in carbon capture is vital in reducing atmospheric carbon concentration. Algae, when used along with bioreactors, are up to 400 times more efficient than a tree at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. With the effective use of algae, we could make entire cities carbon-negative without changing their production and consumption patterns. That means that while we’re still learning to reduce our carbon footprint and reassess our consumption patterns, we can significantly reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations.
Algae consume more carbon dioxide than trees since algae grow faster, cover a larger surface area, and can be easily controlled by bioreactors.
2. Algae as food
As per a report by the United Nations, we will need an increase of 70% in food supply by 2050 to feed the global population. More than 820 million people worldwide do not have enough food to eat. At the same time, our current ways of land-intensive food production are taking a toll on the planet.
Many have recently started to recognize algae as a potential alternative food source. Humans have consumed algae for thousands of years. But we’ve only recently turned our attention to their nutritional and environmental potential.
Algae and microalgae are rich in proteins. They contain essential amino acids, fatty acids, omega-3, -6, and -7, and vitamins A, D, and E. In Iceland, an Israel-based company Algaennovation has been growing microalgae on a small-scale farm. They use geothermal electricity to power LEDs that light up photobioreactors. Wastewater and carbon dioxide from the electricity generation fuel the growth of microalgae inside the photobioreactors.
Cultivating algae is extremely efficient from an ecological perspective. The process is not negative since it removes carbon from the atmosphere. Additionally, algae do not need fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides to thrive. This means zero agricultural emissions. Cultivating algae also does not produce wastewater, unlike conventional agricultural methods. No wastewater means the environment is saved from contamination.
Algae not only remove carbon from the atmosphere but are also a highly efficient protein source. It provides much more protein than meat and fish. That means with a smaller area, we get a much higher amount of protein to supply to the whole world. While obtaining our protein through algae, we’re also saving wild fish populations from overfishing, reducing carbon emissions by consuming less meat, and saving forests from being burned down to create more agricultural land.
3. Algae as fuel
We can also use algae to produce biofuels. Biofuels are fuels obtained directly from living matter. Biofuels can provide a more sustainable alternative to carbon-emitting fossil fuels like petroleum. In fact, researchers have reported that just one acre of algae can produce as much as 5,000 gallons of biofuel in one year.
The world first started exploring algae as a fuel during the 1970s energy crisis. It abandoned most of the algal biofuel projects in the 1990s since biofuels could not compete with the price of petroleum. However, with the cost of oil rising, it is imperative that we find clean-energy solutions. Oil companies like Exxon and individual capitalists are now pouring money into deriving fuel from algae.
Algae have been historically hard to manage due to their rapid growth. But now, with machine learning and artificial intelligence, we can better handle the growth process to ensure that it happens in a manageable and predictable way.
While the world is progressing in this aspect, the biofuel and algae industries realize that the road to profitability is long. Algae biofuels that can compete with the costs of fossil fuels will require long-term research, development, and demonstration. It is hard to convince people to pay more for something they can easily pay less for. However, the time to choose ‘cheap’ is long gone. We must prioritize alternatives that are planet effective, not just cost-effective.
Algae is an extremely viable solution for many climate change problems. Companies looking toward the future are increasingly recognizing this opportunity and investing. But ordinary people like you and me also need to consider algae’s benefits as we seek to reduce our impact on the planet and its environment.
Every little action helps. Sure, planting a tree, participating in ocean clean-ups, and picking up litter whenever you see it is making progressive changes for our planet. But also, start looking at algae as a potential food source, buy products created from algae, and support local and governmental efforts to adopt algae as a method of reducing atmospheric carbon concentrations.
The world can change by two things: technology and collective action. You can be a part of the change and support companies that are leading that change.