Algae: The Future of Just About Everything

Saturday, 27 June 2015 - 11:05AM
Weird Science
Saturday, 27 June 2015 - 11:05AM
Algae: The Future of Just About Everything
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When you think of the potential scientific advancements that will propel mankind into the future, maybe you think of artificial intelligence, space travel, or even genetic modification. But we're guessing that "algae" doesn't feature anywhere on your list.

It's true, algae doesn't exactly fit with the traditional sci-fi idea of the future, but this unassuming, naturally occurring, green goop that has nothing to do with Soylent Green, actually has the potential to be the become the building block for the evolution of… almost anything. Here are just a few examples of the many ways algae is slowly changing our world for the better.

Algae as an Ink:

When we are having trouble finding the perfect birthday card for our grandmother, we probably give up the creative pursuit before it becomes a science project, but Scott Fulbright became inspired. At the University of Colorado Denver's 2015 Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan competition, Fulbright and Steve Albers won the $10,000 first prize for Living Ink Technologies. Using algae to transform carbon dioxide into ink, Fulbright and Albers demonstrated how the technology is used to create greeting cards where the ink becomes visible when the card is placed in the sun.

Algae as a Fuel:

Algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico have been a cause of concern for years, triggering ecological collapse and creating a "dead zone" the size of Connecticut. But John Miller, a professor of chemistry at Western Michigan University, has plans to harvest the deadly algae for biofuel, turning an ecological hazard into an environmental opportunity.

When algae dies, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and feeds dangerous bacteria, but when it's alive, it's capable of soaking up nutrient pollution. Outdoor algae farms combine these positive uses of algae by using thick mats of the vegetation to filter waste water before harvesting it for ethanol-based biofuel. If these "Turf Scrubber" systems are employed in water bodies upstream of the Gulf, it could reduce or prevent the present toxic conditions. In this algae-fuel production model, the algae is grown in its natural environment without the need for genetic modification, as can be the case in industrial algae production.

As a bonus, the waste from the process can be used as an organic fertilizer. Miller has been testing his systems at several farms since this spring, hopefully turning the toxic environmental problem into the solution.

Algae as Treatment for Wounds:

This week, Brooklyn-based biotech firm, Suneris, is introducing VETIGEL, an algae based polymer gel that stops severe bleeding in less than 12 seconds. Suneris is marketing VETIGEL for veterinarians, and since current care takes two or three minutes to accomplish the same task, this invention could be the different between life-or-death for wounded animals. VETIGEL takes on the properties of the tissue it comes in contact with, solidifying into a clot that can withstand the removal of excess gel, and is of a biocompatible nature that can be absorbed into the body.

The current VETIGEL is designed exclusively for veterinarians for internal or external animal wounds, but there are plans to adapt it for human-use in the military, emergency medicine, and human surgery. Algae for Everything!: These three examples are just a small sample of the ways that algae is rapidly becoming one of the most exciting substances in science.

Algae for Everything

But there are so many other ways that algae is used in modern day life. Current uses for the substance include everything using algae as a thickening agent in ice cream, a means of inducing labor, a skin treatment, and even a source of protein. If an algae protein source someday becomes a standard food sample, let's hope that marketers don't miss out on the opportunity to call it Soylent Green.
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