A report on micro- and macroalgae in relation to world food, climate and environmental protection

Most people are already familiar with the microalgae Chlorella Algae (Bio) and Spirulina Algae (Bio) as healthy foods.
But what influence they had on the emergence of life on earth and the associated processes is probably rather unknown to many.

This is a pity, because algae in particular have already done great things in the past and can also contribute a lot to the challenges of our time.

In our online store you can find Chlorella and Spirulina in various forms:

Organic Chlorella

Organic Chlorella

Organic Spirulina

Organic Spirulina

Organic Green Trio

Organic Green Trio

Blue Spirulina

Blue Spirulina

We therefore try to give an insight into the origins, the history and the related properties of microalgae and also to shed light on the diverse uses and potentials.
The focus of our consideration will be the connection between nutrition and climate change, which in turn leads us directly to the core competencies of Chlorella, Spirulina and Co and their big siblings, the macroalgae, namely the production of extremely high-quality nutrients and the production of oxygen and the associated binding of carbon dioxide.

Algae against climate change and species extinction

Climate change and food problems are two problems of our time, which unfortunately are mutually dependent.
Due to the constant population growth, there is of course also a permanently increasing demand for consumer goods, which means that more and more raw materials, energy and also cultivation areas are needed.
This does not remain naturally without consequences for the environment.
Per year approx. 30 million hectares at rain forest are cleared. This area is mainly used for the cultivation of soybeans, which in turn are needed as concentrated feed for cattle breeding, and the cultivation of palm oil.

Abholzung für Palmölplantage

Rainforest clearing for palm oil plantations

This leads to the destruction of the "green lungs" of the planet and the disappearance of a large part of the biological diversity, which in turn promotes desertification and floods, because the soil can no longer absorb heavy precipitation.

On the other hand, it ensures that even more CO2 is released into the earth's atmosphere, as this is no longer stored in the form of biomass, thus further intensifying the greenhouse effect.
This can currently be observed particularly clearly in Brazil and in recent years in Indonesia and Malaysia.

This is supported by excessive cattle breeding and the associated methane emissions, which like CO2 has a greenhouse-reinforcing effect.

Of course, this poses additional challenges, especially for countries that are already struggling with crop failures due to drought, as they are among the hardest hit by the effects of climate change.

How can algae contribute to the solution of these dilemmas?

No oxygen without cyanobacteria and microalgae

To answer this question we need to jump back in time 2.7 billion years, to the Tertiary era, and look at the origin of cyanobacteria and microalgae.

At that time, the Earth was an inhospitable place, largely devoid of oxygen with a thin atmosphere consisting mainly of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen. These elements were then found in the primordial oceans of the so-called primordial soup, which covered the Earth with a mixture of water, sulfur compounds and ammonia.

Ursuppe - Primordial Soup

Primordial soup 3.5 billion years ago

It is hard to imagine that under these hostile conditions cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, like Spirulina, could form.
Nevertheless these organisms, which belong to the Prokarioten, thus bacteria without cell core, were the condition for the fact that at all further life on earth could develop.

From the emergence of the so-called Eukarioten, thus the first unicellular organisms such as Chlorella, we are at this time however still several 100 million years remote, since these need oxygen for living.

However, this had to be formed first.

This is where the cyanobacteria came into play, as they are viable in the absence of oxygen and at the same time are able to produce energy through photosynthesis. They are therefore today also called blue-green algae, because they also show characteristics of algae.

Cyanobakterien unter dem Mikroskop

Cyanobacteria - blue-green algae - Spirulina under the microscope

The first relatives of Spirulina began under the most adverse conditions with the production of oxygen, which was actually only a by-product of photosynthesis, bound at the same time carbon dioxide, and initiated thereby one of the largest transformation processes, which ever took place on this world. The earth began to "rust" so to speak. They created the foundation for all further life on earth and prepared first of all the way for the first micro algae with cell core, like Chlorella.

These first unicellular algae formed then before approx. 1.9 billion years and took over in the following 1 billion years in large variety the supremacy over the planet.
One can assume that these micro and blue algae are also after several billion years of the development substantially unchanged and even today still in partial inhospitable areas their existence fristen. Species are still extremely tolerant of desiccation, salt water but also cold and heat and thus grow, for example, even in glaciers and hot springs up to 70 degrees Celsius.

Chlorella unter dem Mikroskop

Microalgae Chlorella under the microscope

So these were the first tiny living beings on earth, which were able to initiate the greatest transformation process of the planet under the most extreme conditions and are thus jointly responsible for the formation of our earth's atmosphere and ultimately form the foundation for the emergence of all life on our planet.

So what could be more obvious than to rely on your expertise again for our nutritional, climate and environmental problems.

Chlorella and Spiruina - climate protection and nutrition optimally combined

But what can microalgae do to combat climate change and nutritional problems? Well the answer is quite simple.

Cultivating algae like Spirulina and Chlorella is very efficient because, as we already know, algae are able to grow well and produce high levels of nutrients even under poor conditions.
With Chlorella and Spirulina you can produce 10-15 times the amount of protein that is possible when growing soybeans.

So, while the cultivation of soybeans, which is mainly used for the production of cattle feed, is constantly cutting down new rainforest areas, it is possible to cultivate microalgae in desert regions near the coast and at the same time combine it with reforestation projects.

At first glance, this sounds like a contradiction, but on closer inspection it turns out to be an ingenious way of "killing two birds with one stone", namely reforestation and nutrition in regions that are actually rather hostile to life.
The solution here is so-called seawater greenhouses.

Greenhouses for green growth in the desert

The basic idea here is simple, you convert salt water into drinking water. Because actually there is enough water in the world, most of it is just too salty.

There are now several variants of this.
The oldest solution probably dates back to the 1970s and was developed by the Hamburg engineer Dr. Rolf Bettaque and tested even then in the Israeli Negev Desert.

In this basically very simple approach, a greenhouse is equipped with 2 superimposed roofs. The lower roof is constantly flooded with salt water, which evaporates due to the heat and condenses on the upper roof, from where it runs off and is used for irrigation. However, the project never made it to the production stage.

Other projects are more promising and are already in use in some countries.

Charly Paton's project "Seawater Greenhouse" has been in use for about 20 years in different countries and follows a similar approach as Bettaque.

Meerwasser Gewächshaus

Principle of a Seawater Greenhouse

Here, too, the basic principle is the extraction of fresh water from salt water, and in this approach, too, the way it works is as simple as can be.

Solar-powered pumps are used to pump the cool seawater to the greenhouses, where it is channeled through air-permeable sponge-like walls at the front.
At the back of the greenhouse, large fans stand and draw hot desert air through the sponge structure and into the interior of the greenhouse.
When it hits the sponge structures, the hot desert air becomes saturated with water and thus cools down. On the one hand, this causes the temperature inside the greenhouse to drop, creating a temperature level that is suitable for growing plants, and on the other hand, fresh water is thus transported inside the greenhouse. But this is not the end of the process, because the air also leaves the greenhouse again on the back side.
There, the air is again passed through the sponge-like wall structures. On this side, however, these are saturated with hot salt water that is fed through tubes on the roof of the greenhouse and heated there by the sun.
The air is thus again saturated with fresh water here and then fed through a system of vertical tubes containing cool seawater. This causes the water contained in the air to condense and drain into a water reservoir. The resulting water can be used for supplemental irrigation. Surplus water can be used for reforestation or as drinking water.
The advantage is through the salt water no pesticides are needed, because pests are killed by the salt water. Minerals extracted from the brine can be used for fertilization.

The seawater greenhouse would thus provide optimal conditions for the cultivation of organic Chlorella or organic Spirulina. On the one hand, it provides clean drinking water and nutrients, and on the other hand, it does not require the use of pesticides. So, in this way, you can grow high quality algae without wasting drinking water and save resources for fertilization.

Since, unlike chlorella, spirulina cultivation does not necessarily require fresh water, it could also be cultivated directly in salt water.

But Paton's solution could also be improved, and so for some years now there has been a cooperation between Charlie Paton and other partners under the name "Sahara Forest Project".

The Sahara Forest Project was developed by architect Michael Biomimetik Pawlyn, seawater greenhouse designer Charlie Paton, and structural engineer Bill Watts. In 2009, the trio joined forces with Bellona, an international environmental organization based in Norway, to present their proposals at COP15 of the 15th UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

This variant already uses saltwater macroalgae production. But spirulina is also ideal for this purpose, as it grows in both salt and fresh water, so the fresh water obtained could be used elsewhere. Another possibility would be the use of photobioreactors, i.e. closed tube systems in which microalgae grow under controlled conditions.

But why microalgae like Chlorella and Spirulina? Well, as already described, these algae are extremely resistant and grow under the most adverse conditions, such as extreme heat and cold, but can also survive several decades of drought. They are therefore suitable from the outset for cultivation in areas that are unsuitable for regular agriculture.
Both algae are enormously productive in cultivation, so that one can make the best use of both for the production of high-quality food.

But the possibilities of spirulina and chlorella are far from exhausted.

Combined water purification and energy production with algae

Both microalgae and macroalgae are ideal for the production of CO2-neutral biofuels, such as biodiesel or bioethanol. This is because they are very oily.
Chlorella algae in particular stand out here again because they have other positive properties that can be used in fuel production.
Chlorella has the ability to bind pollutants such as nitrate and phosphate. Both substances are used in agriculture as fertilizers and as a result are often found in groundwater, but also in lakes and rivers near the surface, where they damage the environment in excess. Here one has now the possibility to use the Chlorella algae specifically to combat pollutants.

Wasserreinigung mit Algen

Algae for water purification

The alga also uses the nitrate and phosphate for the formation of proteins and thus for growth. In this process, it removes the pollutants from the water body and thus contributes to the purification. The advantage here is that chlorella only needs one of the two substances to grow. This means that even if one of the two substances disappears from the water during purification, algae growth does not stagnate.
But not only nitrate and phosphorus are bound by the algae, but also heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and chromium. Studies show that a combination of microalgae with certain bacterial strains further accelerates algae growth and ensures that up to 93% of the heavy metals in the water are bound by the algae.
During the growth process, however, the algae bind not only nitrogen and phosphorus but also carbon dioxide. For 2kg algae mass 2kg CO2 are needed. In return, of course, oxygen is released.
At the end of this growth process, there is a very oily and thus energy-rich algae, which can be used in different ways. On the one hand, it can be introduced into biogas plants and used to generate energy. The remaining so-called fermentation residue can then be spread on the fields again as fertilizer. This creates a cycle.

Accelerating the energy revolution - algae as a sustainable fuel source

However, the algae mass can also be used as a CO2-neutral fuel supplier, as indicated above.
The so-called triacylglycerides, in simple terms natural fats contained in the algae, can be extracted and subsequently refined into fuel, e.g. biodiesel. They thus serve as an alternative to petroleum.
Unfortunately, it must be understood that the quantities that can be produced in this way would never be sufficient to replace the need for fossil fuels. However, since valuable farmland is currently being lost to biofuels, this may eventually provide an alternative to the current production process.

Biomasse Raffinerie

Biomass refinery in Brazil

The same applies, as described at the beginning of the text, to the extraction of palm oil and the cultivation of soy products for animal feed production.
Large areas of rainforest are cleared for both palm and soy cultivation. This development could be counteracted by microalgae.
Since microalgae are very oily and contain mainly unsaturated fatty acids, they could at least partially replace palm oil. The same applies to fodder soy. Dried algae contain up to 50% more protein than soybeans and would therefore be an optimal concentrate substitute for livestock. Due to their rapid growth, more biomass can be produced in a shorter time. Also, the relatively difficult digestibility of e.g. chlorella does not play a role especially in cattle breeding and the high oil content of the algae even results in a higher omega-3 fat content of the milk.

Thus, this process could at least partially help to curb rainforest deforestation.


Rainforest deforestation

This could play a special role in Brazil. Here, unfortunately, rainforest de forestation reached a sad record in 2022.
In just one month, 904 square kilometers of rainforest were cut down in October 2022.

This is an absolute disaster not only for climate change, but also for biodiversity. Flora and fauna will find it very difficult to ever recover from such cuts. The ecosystem as we know it now will simply cease to exist as the mistreatment continues.

This makes it all the more important and at all levels to ensure that climate change, species extinction and environmental pollution are counteracted.

Brazil has actually been using a system of fuel production for several decades that is actually CO2 neutral.


Sugar cane harvest in Brazil

Almost every car in Brazil runs on both regular gasoline and ethanol.
Brazil is one of the largest bio-ethanol producers in the world. Sugar cane grows particularly well and quickly in the tropical climate, and its high sugar content makes it ideal for producing ethanol.
So far so good. The problem, however, is that the cultivation of sugar cane requires land area that is increasingly obtained by clearing rainforests. This is nonsense, of course, and does more harm than good.
Here, too, microalgae can be a viable alternative. Growing rapidly, they produce energy-rich biomass on a much smaller area.
Spirulina platensis in particular has probably shown promising results in the production of bio-ethanol and could thus help to at least curb rainforest clearing in the future.

In this topic, however, not only microalgae but also macroalgae may come into question in the future.

The big siblings of microalgae - macroalgae

Macroalgae have different potentials than microalgae. Most people are probably familiar with them as seaweed from vacations at the seaside, where they are usually found in abundance on the beach.
Macroalgae are already being used in a variety of ways.

Seetang im Meer

Underwater photo of macroalgae/seaweed

In Asian countries in particular, they are served in a variety of ways. In this country, we are probably primarily familiar with nori sea weed as a coating for sushi rolls or the squeaky green wakame seaweed salad. Both are very iodine-rich and therefore are estimated before also in the vegan nutrition as valuable iodine supplier. But here caution is required. The iodine content of these algae can vary greatly and sometimes have significantly excessive iodine content. In some cases, the contents are so high that damage to the thyroid gland cannot be ruled out. This was found by Stiftung Warentest in one of its studies.
The occasional sushi certainly does no harm, but anyone who regularly eats seaweed should make sure that the manufacturer checks the iodine content.

Algae are also popular in medicine, e.g. for making compresses, as wound fillers or stomach acid blockers.

Now algae are supposed to help us with another problem. They are supposed to help us cope with the plastic flood and at the same time reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Algae as a sustainable plastic substitute

Macroalgae offer a great advantage. They consist of an extremely tough and resistant material, the so-called polymers, which is also very flexible. These are properties they share with plastic. This is not surprising, because plastic is made from petroleum, which in turn was formed by the transformation of organic, mainly plant material, over millions of years.

The material that makes up the polymer in algae are hydrocolloid structural polysaccharides, such as agar, alginate and carrageenan.
The term "hydrocolloid" is derived from the Greek word "hydro" water and "kolla" glue. This means that they bind water on the one hand and form a certain stability on the other.

This can be exploited in the production of a plastic substitute. Today, there are already various companies that produce plastic substitute products with the help of algae.
The following video gives an insight into the advantages that macroalgae offer and presents a company in France that is successfully working with the new "algae plastic".

However, the plastic substitute has even more possibilities compared to conventional plastic. Regular plastic is made from petroleum, which creates several problems. Products, which are manufactured from it, decompose on the one hand badly or not at all. As a rule, they continue to decompose into smaller components until they are in the form of microplastics, which are now found in the environment, the soil, water, many foods and drinking water, and thus of course also get into the human body. According to the current state of research, it is not yet known whether this harms the human body.

On the other hand, CO2 is released when the plastic does not simply disintegrate, but is burned, for example, because it is no longer suitable for recycling.
This CO2, which was previously bound in the earth's crust in the form of oil, thus naturally enters the earth's atmosphere, further driving climate change.

If one replaces now a part of the plastic by algae, at least a part of the CO2 emissions is transferred into a cycle.
Since the algae bind carbon dioxide during your growth, naturally also only this quantity is released again with the dismantling of the product.
an additional positive effect is the water purification with the algae growth. During the growth process, the algae bind pollutants such as nitrate and phosphate and convert them into growth energy.

But this is not enough. Algae have further potential to counteract climate change.

Agriculture with algae rethought

In addition to carbon dioxide, there is another greenhouse gas that occurs in the atmosphere in smaller quantities but has a significantly higher greenhouse gas potential: methane.

The greenhouse gas potential of a gas describes the climate impact of a gas over a certain period of time, for example 100 years, in relation to carbon dioxide.
This is then expressed in so-called carbon dioxide equivalents.
In this calculation, one ton of methane is just as harmful as 25 tons of CO2 over a period of 100 years.

Overall, methane emissions have been falling steadily for years. However, one sector that emits methane at a constantly high level is agriculture, especially livestock farming.

However, this can be counteracted by using certain types of algae. In this case, it would not be microalgae that would be used, as described above, but certain types of macroalgae. Various types of macroalgae have the property, when added to cattle feed, for example, of significantly reducing methane emissions, in some cases by up to over 90 percent.
One algae in particular, Asparagopsis, which is native to Australian waters, excels here.
Another positive effect is that the amount of feed can be reduced, which does not make the addition of algae to feed more expensive. At the same time, farmers who additionally feed their animals with algae could be offered compensation payments for the emissions saved.

However, in order to use algae on a large scale in all these areas, the current stocks are certainly not sufficient and one would have to start growing them on a large scale on algae farms.

Algentrocknung auf Algenfarm

Algae drying on algae farms

Macroalgae - The CO2 reservoirs of the future?

Algae farms already exist today. In most of the world's coastal regions, seaweed is cultivated for human use on a more or less large scale.
However, in order to capture CO2 on a globally necessary scale, much larger farms would be required on the one hand, and on the other hand, the algae would have to be harvested continuously and not only transferred to a circular economy, as this would limit CO2 storage, but the algae mass would have to be stored permanently and protected from decay.
To this end, some scientists propose lowering the algae to the bottom of the deep sea.
There, they would be covered with sediment and would thus be stored in the absence of oxygen. This would be the same system, which made millions of years ago the oil formation possible.
An exciting contribution to it, finds you in the following Arte video.

A CO2 storage of the other kind is already in the test phase. In order to get to know this, we come back to the micro algae. These are used in Belgrade and Paris in so-called photo-bio-reactors. This is a large glass container, similar to an aquarium, which is filled with water and a microalgae culture. The CO2-containing city air is then passed through this water, which stimulates the algae to grow and produce oxygen, thus purifying the air in the inner cities.
In winter, this system requires some additional heat, which can be generated by photovoltaics.
The photo-bio-reactor is much more efficient than trees would be. On average, it removes as much CO2 in one year as a tree does in 10 years. The resulting biomass could be used again for energy production or as fertilizer. Again, there is an explanatory video. :)

Finally, it remains to say that algae will certainly not be the solution to all our problems, but they can certainly make a significant contribution in the areas of climate change, world nutrition, waste prevention and energy production.

This has also been recognized by the UN, and in its "Seaweed Manifesto" it once again outlines the benefits, but also the challenges and risks, that a new algae industry to be created will bring. Let's hope that it does not remain with sketches, but that these are also implemented. In this sense: eat more Algae & Extracts! :)