Algae As a Green Solution for Climate Change and Innovation
October 27, 2023
Scientists at the University of Houston’s microbial products lab are making significant strides in algae research, bringing us closer to achieving the goal of net-zero carbon emissions. Their findings, detailed in a recently published article in Green Chemistry, shed light on the hidden potential of micro-algae and its ability to combat climate change.
Micro-algae, small light-sensitive organisms found in fresh and saltwater, have the remarkable capacity to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. However, what truly captivates researchers like Venkatesh Balan, associate professor of engineering technology at UH, is the ability of micro-algae to convert captured CO2 into mass-produced proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates.
Balan’s research extends beyond addressing climate issues alone. He envisions a transformation in the way we produce food, evaluating the potential of micro-algae to treat wastewater and utilise algal biomass for the production of food, fertilisers, fuels, and chemicals. Already, fresh water grown algae like spirulina find application in health supplements and cosmetics, while micro-algae could serve as a sustainable feedstock for biofuels and biochemicals, reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
In the face of global warming, micro-algae emerge as a powerful tool for combating climate change. Balan emphasised the urgency, citing unprecedented heatwaves lasting months in Texas and other regions as undeniable evidence of climate change’s impact. Greenhouse gases, including CO2 and chlorofluorocarbon, contribute to the greenhouse effect, trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and accelerating warming.
Lawmakers, policymakers, and even emissions-producing industries are increasingly interested in finding alternatives to combat greenhouse gas emissions. However, Balan reminds us that pollution problems extend beyond industries alone. Every individual, through their consumption choices, inadvertently contributes to the greenhouse effect. Visualising the emissions from orchards, factories, transportation, and personal commutes may help raise awareness about our collective impact.
Addressing excess CO2 in the atmosphere has traditionally involved expensive and energy-intensive methods like carbon capture and storage. Balan proposes an alternative approach, utilising algae to fix CO2 and converting the carbon into useful bioproducts for humankind.
In a recent breakthrough, Balan and his research assistant, Masha Alian, discovered that algae can be used as a substrate to produce fungus - a valuable tool in achieving a net-zero carbon footprint.
This symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi mirrors nature’s lichen, comprising both algae and fungi. Balan’s lab aims to replicate this natural process, where algae produce oxygen, and fungi stabilise CO2 while also producing oxygen. Additionally, the algae-fungus food bed could be converted into healthy food products.
Algae research holds immense promise in the fight against climate change while driving sustainable innovation. By harnessing the hidden potential of micro-algae, we can pave the way towards a greener and more sustainable future.
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