What is Algae? How can we Use it to Reduce Carbon?
Algae is found in all corners of the world, in the oceans, on land, and even in Antarctica! It isn’t one group of organisms; but a general term for an extensive group of tiny photosynthetic eukaryotic cells.
These organisms are exceptionally efficient at capturing carbon because their entire surface area is dedicated to photosynthesis (the process in which cells intake CO2 and output oxygen). In trees, only the leaves and a little bit of the stems perform this critical process. Algae will pull more carbon from the atmosphere given the same amount of space as trees (or any other plant). If grown in bioreactors, algae can intake 400 times more carbon than trees.
What are Bioreactors?
The most efficient way to grow algae is relatively easy to do and comes along with other benefits. In bioreactors, algae is put under transparent glass with access to the atmosphere, sunlight, and nutrients from wastewater or other sources. This technology can be organized into one large complex or individual washing machine-sized devices. The former allows for centralized and easy-to-manage carbon reduction using wastewater as a nutrient source, providing natural water treatment at a low cost. The latter can be placed all around a city to “spread the wealth” of cleaner air and does not require a large plot of land.
An issue with bioreactors is that they require a lot of energy to maintain specific temperatures, provide light and circulate water. However, this is still a new and ever-developing technology, and more investment and technological improvement will help it increase its energy-efficiency. One way to reduce the energy used is to build reactors with algae native to the region where they are being installed, leading to fewer temperature adjustments. As the technology improves, the reactors will find better ways to allow natural light to enter the reactor. Another positive is that while they take a lot of energy to run, they also produce energy that can partially offset their electricity toll. While energy consumption is and always will be a challenge humanity faces, renewable and clean energy is on the rise. This means that energy consumption by algae bioreactors is becoming less of a problem, while the benefits of their carbon intake are becoming more critical as CO2 levels continue to climb.
Other benefits of bioreactors include:
- Natural water treatment. Using wastewater as a nutrient source for algae has the added benefit of removing a lot of biomass and other harmful substances from our sewage.
- Oxygen production. While intaking carbon, algae produces oxygen. Higher oxygen concentrations help with lung repair and make breathing more efficient.
- Biomass for energy or consumption. Algae can be used as a protein source or to burn to make energy.
Bioreactors in the Home
But it isn’t just the government and corporations who can afford bioreactors. You can have one in your own home! Countertop bioreactors are mainly marketed as a protein source, but they also do a great job of cleaning air within the home by intaking CO2 and producing oxygen.
These natural air purifiers also help reduce emissions from the food we eat. Common protein sources, such as meat, are very harmful to the environment. There are issues of emissions, water use, and land degradation from producing the meat itself. Then, the food must travel long distances for packaging, storage, purchase, and consumption. All of these steps produce carbon and harm the environment. Even vegan options have their downsides of water use and still suffer the same transportation drawbacks as meat. Algae grown in domestic bioreactors can be added to a person’s diet as a high-protein supplement to reduce their toll on the land, water, and air. Home-grown algae isn’t eaten as a bowl of straight green sludge (although it could be since the type of algae typically used, spirulina, is tasteless when grown fresh). But instead, by incorporating a more appetizing form into smoothies, sauces, and dressings.
Other health benefits of eating spirulina include:
- High vitamin and mineral content
- Boosted immune system
- Reduced inflammation
- Reduced risk of oral cancers
A Multi-Faceted Solution
The climate crisis is an issue that cannot be combated with just one strategy. Bioreactors offer an exciting new way to reduce carbon in our atmosphere while providing many other benefits. But, they are not the ultimate solution to climate change. Other efforts to reduce emissions must continue to be made. That said, the hope is that algae bioreactors will be implemented in cities and homes at a large scale within the next few years. Some Western European countries have already started to use industrial-scale reactors, and algae is already being incorporated into many diets. The future of this technology is bright (and green).
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