Aaah, a cooling dip in the Baltic Sea! But, hang on, what’s this green-brown slime? Algae are a big problem for the Baltic, with algal blooms often forming as soon as the water along the Swedish shores gets warm enough for swimming. Researchers have come up with some ingenious uses for this sometimes foul-smelling and toxic algal slime.
by: David Wiles
Swedish researchers have discovered that algae can be used to make anything from batteries to bioplastics, as well as to purify air and add Omega 3 to smoothies. Illustration: Nils-Petter Ekwall
At Sweden’s Uppsala University, Professor Maria Strømme and her research group have developed a revolutionary “algae battery.” Their breakthrough, which has attracted media attention from around the world, features electrodes made of cellulose taken from gooey green Cladophora glomerata algae. Not only are these batteries cheap, simple, metal-free and safe to incinerate or throw away after use, but they can be charged in just 10 seconds. The list of potential uses is endless.
Read more: Vinnova — Sweden’s Innovation Agency
Instead of making biofuels from food crops like corn, why not make it from algae? Researchers in Umeå in northern Sweden have announced plans to make renewable biogas and biodiesel using algae cultivated from sewage at the city’s municipal water treatment plant. Proponents claim that algae-based biodiesel has a greenhouse gas footprint 93 percent smaller than conventional diesel, while several airlines have already carried out flights using a blend of standard and algae-derived jet fuel.
Read more: SLU — Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
3. Air and water purification
Besides producing renewable biofuels, the Umeå project will reduce levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen and phosphorous coming from the local power station. Studies in the United States have shown that algae have the potential to remove up about 60 percent of the CO2 and 85 percent of the nitrous oxide from power plants. The Umeå project will also purify water; so-called algae scrubbers have long been used remove problem nutrients from ponds and aquaria.
Read more: Environmental Technology — 13 Swedish Solutions
Algae in their various forms have been eaten by people for centuries and are today used as thickener or gelling agent in ice cream, milk shakes, dressings and sauces. In the small village of Hammenhög in southern Sweden, Simris Alg will soon start cultivating algae in converted greenhouses for its Omega 3 content. Besides being sold in stores as a health supplement, the Omega 3 will be added to functional foods, smoothies and infant formula.
Read more: Algaeindustrymagazine.com
5. Animal feed
It’s not just us humans who eat algae — animals do too. Algae are increasingly being seen as a protein-rich source of feed to supplement and replace some of the corn and soybean meal fed to food-producing animals. Algae produce 50 times more oil per hectare than corn, with a much smaller carbon footprint. They use nutrients more efficiently than land plants, and they don’t require high-quality agricultural land or freshwater supplies.
Read more: News.cornell.edu
Few could find beauty in the algal slime clogging Swedish beaches, but algae are actually used in many cosmetics. Some algae act as thickening or water-binding agents, while others contain proteins, vitamin A, sugar, starch, vitamin B1, iron, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper and calcium, which can be beneficial for the skin as emollients or antioxidants. However, claims that algae can stop the skin’s ageing process are unproven.
Read more: Oilgae.com
7. Weight loss
If the stench of algae is not enough to put you off your food, the algae themselves might. For a number of years various diet supplements have contained algae because of their high protein content and antioxidant properties. But now Scandinavian researchers have found that alginate (dietary fibers) from brown algae create an artificial feeling of fullness, which means that you eat less and lose more weight.
Read more: Medicalnewstoday.com
8. Climate change
Could algae be used to stop or even reverse climate change? When they conduct photosynthesis, marine algae take up CO2, so it has been suggested that algal blooms could be artificially created to absorb CO2. Either they would sink to the seafloor and remove the CO2 from the atmosphere for centuries, or be harvested to use as a biofuel (see above). However, the side effects of such actions on marine ecosystems are not known.
Read more: Phys.org
Swallow a mouthful of seawater containing algae at the beach and it can make you ill. But in more refined form algae have been used as a remedy or to prevent illness for centuries. Today blue-green algae are used to treat a certain kind of mouth ulcer, while recent research has found that a substance derived from brown algae works as an anti-tumor agent capable of controlling the spread of cancerous cells.
Read more: Algaeindustrymagazine.com
Pigment from algae is attracting considerable interest as an alternative to chemical-based coloring agents. AstaReal, a biotechnology company based in Gustavsberg, near Stockholm, makes an additive for animal feed containing astaxanthin, which is produced by the alga Haematococcus pluvialis. The company induces the alga to produce large amounts of astaxanthin, which is then refined down to a deep red powder that is fed to chickens so that they produce eggs with a more colorful yolk.
Read more: Bioreal.se
Algae and the Baltic Sea
- Risk of algal blooms is highest on warm, calm, sunny days. Blooms can exist for anything from minutes to weeks, and generally break up in windy conditions.
- Algal blooms are fed by nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers and sewage.
- The Baltic is home to seven of the of the world’s ten largest marine “dead zones” — areas where the sea’s oxygen has been used up by seabed bacteria that decompose dead algae.
- Overfishing of Baltic cod has intensified the problem. Cod eat smaller fish that eat microscopic marine creatures that in turn eat the algae.
- Birds, fish and mammals can be killed by algal toxins.
Baltic Sea Festival
- The Baltic Sea Festival was founded in 2003 by composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor Valery Gergiev and director of Berwaldhallen, Michael Tydén.
- The 2012 festival will take place at the Berwaldhallen concert hall in Stockholm from August 24 to September 1.
- The festival also aims to raise awareness of the sensitive environment of the Baltic Sea. The WWF, founding partner of the festival, organizes seminars during the festival to address the environmental challenges of the Baltic Sea such as eutrophication* and overfishing.
- In connection with the 10th Baltic Sea Festival, Salonen, Gergiev and Tydén received the WWF Baltic Sea Leadership Award 2012 for their untiring leadership and commitment to music and the environment in connection with the festival.
Read more about the Baltic Sea Festival
*Eutrophication is the ecosystem response to the addition of artificial or natural substances, such as nitrates and phosphates, through fertilizers or sewage, to an aquatic system. (Source: Wikipedia)
David Wiles is a British writer living on Sweden’s south coast. He avoids the summer’s algal blooms by taking an annual dip in the Baltic on New Year’s Day instead.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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