From running shoes to carbon sinks: Four surprising uses for algae

[Global] Toxic algal blooms are a problem in ecosystems around the world, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that algae is an environmental villain. But as Future Tense finds out, algae could change the world for the better.

If you ever think of algae—and that may be a pretty substantial ‘if’—you’re likely to focus on the negatives.

The green slime in your swimming pool, or the toxic algal blooms that pollute waterways and close beaches. But there’s just so much more to algae than meets the eye.

It turns out algae has some very surprising uses, from food to fuel sources and even medicine.

You’ll never think of algae—if you do think of algae—the same way again.

Running shoes

When you think ‘elite athlete’, you probably don’t think ‘algae’, but Rob Falken reckons you should.

Algae can be used as a polymer in clothing and on surface.
Algae can be used as a polymer in clothing and on surface.

According to Falken—the managing director of Bloom, LLC—algae can also be used inside foam compositions.

‘The way that this works is, algae isn’t a filler—it’s in a powdered state.’

Unlike talcum or calcium carbonate—powders often used in foam compositions as low-cost filler—algae is a polymer.

So what does this have to do with your shoes?

Well, Falken’s team has found that by mixing algae biomass powder into a conventional foam resin matrix, the elongation rates of the resulting foam increase by 25 to 40 per cent, improving the springiness.

It also improves the foam’s resilience; a running shoe made from traditional polymer foam, Falken says, can last for about 1000 kilometres before the foam begins to collapse on a cellular level.

Early-stage testing with algae-mix foams are getting far better results.

‘You can actually get more miles run with an algae foam versus a conventional foam,’ says Falken.

‘The algae is an extremely valuable asset.

‘It is adding value in ways that no one has seen before.’

Carbon sinks

Paris has a lot of famous landmarks. There’s the Eiffel Tower, for one. The Arc de Triomphe. The Louvre. And who could forget its famous, strategically-placed, green glowing algae carbon wells.

Photobioreactor such as this can absorb carbon dioxide while producing biomass useful for fuel (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/IGV BIOTECH)
Photobioreactor such as this can absorb carbon dioxide while producing biomass useful for fuel (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/IGV BIOTECH)

Okay, so the carbon wells are yet to catch on. There is a prototype, but if the company Fermentalg has its way, algae wells will bedotted about the French capital. They look like very large glass tubes, and they’re filled with a bubbling algae solution.

‘It’s almost a large aquarium, and the algae grow in a liquid environment inside,’ says Hywel Griffiths, chief scientific officer at Fermantalg.

The columns are decorative, in a way, but that isn’t their main function. ‘The real aim of this,’ Griffiths says, ‘is to improve the quality of the air around the world.’

The columns do this by setting the algae to work gobbling up carbon. The fish tank-like structures are backlit with a specific wavelength of light that stimulates photosynthesis. The algae then feed on the carbon dioxide in city air, and grow.

‘The aim is for each of these to be able to pull a tonne of carbon dioxide out of the air per year, which doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s actually about the same amount of carbon dioxide that 100 trees will pull out,’ Griffith says.

Stopping infections in hospitals

Hospital-acquired infections kill thousands of people a year. Ordinarily, silver and silver chloride are the anti-microbial materials of choice used to inhibit the growth of bacteria.

Algae are highly anti-microbial and could be cheaper than existing materials. (KIZZZBETH/FLICKR/CC/BY/SA/2.0)
Algae are highly anti-microbial and could be cheaper than existing materials. (KIZZZBETH/FLICKR/CC/BY/SA/2.0)

But certain strains of algae have anti-microbial properties as well. According to Bloom LLC’s Rob Falken, the potential uses are immense.

‘There’s a great potential for many fields of use. Applications could be countertops, it could be resins, it could be in concrete, it could be in fibres, it could be in plastics, it could be everywhere.

‘I mean, you’re talking about billions of dollars of industry globally that we have the potential to impact with positive change.’

Combating less good algae

Not all types of algae are so beneficent. In other words, there’s such a thing as bad algae.

Good algae can be used to force bad algae out of areas it shouldn't be in. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Good algae can be used to force bad algae out of areas it shouldn’t be in. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

When algae feed and grow, the resultant blooms can produce toxins harmful to animals and people. Some blooms even eat up all the oxygen in marine environments, leading to oceanic ‘dead zones’.

Simon Tannock, founder at NualgiEnviro, has found a solution: using nanotechnology, he coats the micro-nutrients needed for algae to grow in a silica casing. Thus packaged, the bad algae—otherwise known as cyanobacteria, or blue/green algae—don’t recognise their food. This allows the good algae—also known as diatoms—to flourish.

‘The reason I’m excited about algae,’ Tannock says, ‘is because of the potential it has in so many areas.’

 

Photo: The potential applications of algae are incredibly varied

View original article at: From running shoes to carbon sinks: four surprising uses for algae

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