Algae is the name given to any aquatic plant that can perform photosynthesis. Biologists also call microalgae phytoplankton. Seaweed is the name given to bigger macroalgae or large aquatic plants.
Breath in. Over half of the oxygen you just inhaled was made by microalgae. They produce 50-80% of the oxygen on this planet.
Cyanobacteria, a type of microalgae also known as blue-green algae, were the first organisms on Earth to photosynthesise, using light as energy and converting carbon dioxide into oxygen in the process and creating the oxygen atmosphere that allowed all life on Earth to evolve.
Cyanobacteria are the evolutionary bridge between bacteria and green plants. All plants that perform photosynthesis contain a chloroplast, a structure within each cell of the plant that allow it to perform photosynthesis. These chloroplasts likely originated from ancient symbiotic relationships with cyanobacteria that eventually merged into a symbiotic evolution. Today, chloroplasts in all photosynthetic plants retain genomes seperate to the plant genome that resemble those of cyanobacteria.
Spirulina, a type of cyanobacteria and also a microalgae, is the Earth’s oldest living plant, estimated to have been growing for 3.6 billion years. Spirulina is a single-celled organism that make their own food, meaning they do not consume anything but light.
Microalgae form the basis for most food chains in both freshwater and oceans.
In Western history, there is evidence that Aztecs and Mesoamericans used spirulina as a food source until the 16th Century, when the Spanish invaded and drained the lakes to use for agriculture and urban development. There is also evidence that tribes in the African nation of Chad used spirulina as a food source.
Spirulina is an ecologically sound, nutrient-rich food source that provides all the components required by humans: it is a complete food source. It requires no fresh water or land to grow, is easy to cultivate - I have spirulina bioreactors growing on my desk - and could provide a solution to food security and malnutrition as well as a viable alternative to livestock and traditional agriculture.
Dried spirulina is 60-70% protein and contains the full range of amino acids which humans need to grow and function properly, but cannot make ourselves. In comparison, a steak is about 26% protein. Spirulina has four times as much vitamin B12 than raw liver, which is considered to be ‘the best’ source of this nutrient. It also contains antioxidants including about 30 times more betacarotene than a carrot, as well as vitamins B1, B2, E and minerals iron, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus. Iron is usually present only in animals and fish and spirulina is one of the only plant sources of this mineral.
Spirulina is highly alkaline. My bioreactors are currently sitting around 10 pH. Its growth in oceans can combat ocean acidification and it can process carbon in the atmosphere into oxygen at 4-5 times the rate of a mature tree.
The name of the epoch we live in is up for discussion. One argument for the new name proposed, anthropocene, is that the trail of petrochemical trash that humans have produced recently is set to leave a mark in this layer of rock strata. Where we uncovered fossils from the past, our time may be overwhelmingly marked by BicTM pen casings and other so-called disposable items. Plastics made to serve a short-term purpose leave a trace that lasts longer than our lifetimes.
I use red algae as a natural polymer alongside other organic ingredients to create other types of non-petrochemical plastic. I have undertaken research tracing the supply chain of this polymer back to the ocean to ensure the sustainability of its harvest and production.
From old algae (which petroleum is made from), to new algae (which can rehabilitate oceans and atmosphere through its production and sustainable harvest).
The plastics I make are safe enough to eat. They can be transformed into new items easily in a home kitchen. If discarded, they are beneficial for the environments they land in. Within soil, the hydrophilic nature of the material lends itself to sustaining moisture content as well as providing a food source for worms and other critters living in the earth. It is compostable within a month or so, depending on the weather, contributes towards rehabilitating topsoil and can be a food source for water-dwelling beings should it find its way there at the end of its productive life serving humans. They will not leave a geological trace.
A recipe for algae bioplastic
Large smooth flat trays, clean and dry
20g agar powder
20g vegetable glycerine
5g spirulina powder (less or more as you like for colouring)
600 ml water
Mix the agar powder and water.
Heat on the stove until boiling and stir constantly to make sure it's all mixed.
At this point, stir with a clean spoon, remove and notice the visible granules when you look closely at it.
Stir over a gentle boil for around 30-45 minutes, until you notice a consistency change at a certain point, where the mix becomes noticeably silkier.
Stir with a clean spoon again and look for the point when those visible granules disappear.
When you have reached silky-point, add in the glycerine and spirulina. Mix well and turn down the heat as low as possible.
Stir for a few minutes to make sure everything is mixed through.
Pour mix into the tray and move it around while liquid to cover the surface for a sheet of bioplastic.
Leave to dry for 24-48 hours. Lie in the sun to dry if possible.
Peel up the sides using the edge of a butter knife or cut around the edge using a blade. Carefully peel the sheet off.
Gently place the sheet upside down back on the tray and leave to dry some more. This can take up to a week or more depending on the environment. Move it as it dries, stretching it out evenly along the way.
Use your bioplastic sheet as a replacement for single-use petrochemical plastic wraps, bags and containers. If you’d like to sew it, lay down paper along the edges you wish to sew before you pour the bioplastic sheet.
1. Jessie French's desktop spirulina bioreactor.
2. Algae-based bioplastic.
3. Algae-based bioplastic tableware coloured with spirulina and dunaliella salina extracted from pink lake algae, pictured with algae leather which is produced as part of a regenerative recycling process. Photo © Jessie French
4. Jessie French drinking from a bioplastic vessel. Photo © Benjamin Thomson
5. Spirulina under microscope.
6. Algae-based bioplastic.
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