Among all the photosynthesizing organisms on Earth, Algae is of utmost importance. Do you want to know why?
Well, algae are responsible for capturing enormous energy from our Sun and can produce ample oxygen, more than all plants combined.
They fulfill the Earth’s need for oxygen, on which humans and animals survive. However, some algae, such as seaweed, are neither animals nor plants but protists, a group of living things.
They are more than just the supplier of oxygen for this planet and its lives. So let’s find out more about the real importance of Algae.
All animals depend on plants for energy, whether directly or indirectly. However, as algae are photosynthetic, just like plants, they are at the bottom of the food chain.
It means they synthesize their energy without the need to eat anything. They take in their energy to survive from the sunlight and the inorganic nutrients.
Algae initiate the transfer of energy from the sun to biomass. As a result of which, the energy then transfers up to the trophic levels for other predators.
Algae, being phytoplankton, is responsible for this primary production, which is then consumed by zooplankton, and the energy transfer cycle continues.
Larger algae act as a habitat for fish and other invertebrate animals. When the algae die, organisms such as fungi or bacteria consume them and their high-energy molecules.
After immense experiments for ages, scientists have discovered that biofuel is sourced majorly from microalgae. This bio-substance can then be processed into crude oil.
Then, crude oil creates biobutanol, biogasoline, biodiesel, jet fuel, ethanol, or methane. If you count on the natural process, then it takes millions of years for algae to convert into crude oil, but with scientists in action, this can now be done in just minutes.
The researchers have discovered a way to speed up this heat-facilitated conversion of algae into crude oil. And with this technology, the companies will now have the feasibility to sell biofuel and its byproducts at a very low price.
A specific process goes into action, so here is a brief elaboration on it for your understanding.
Let’s go step by step on how Algae is converted into crude oil and natural gas:
Algae can grow under several conditions, even in some that aren’t favorable for the plants to grow. Researchers have proved that algae can bloom in salty waters with excessive exposure to sunlight, lack of nutrients, and other such conditions.
The thing to note here is that if the algae’s concentration levels are high, it will have a suppressed ability to absorb light. In such cases, algae absorb organic carbons, organic acids, and sugars to replace their need for sunlight. Hence, this is how algae grows.
2. Conversion to Crude Oil
After the algae are successfully harvested, the biomass is processed in three steps that vary from species to species.
Firstly, the algae are dehydrated with the proper procedures and then introduced to a solvent. Most researchers prefer Hexane to withdraw the energy compounds from the dried algae.
After the extraction, these energy compounds are then set for processing into fuel with standard industry procedures. For instance, processing these compounds with methanol will create biodiesel. The method is called transesterification.
The catch is the amount and composition of fatty acids in algae vary from species to species. And this influences the output quality of the biodiesel. Therefore, the researchers need to take account of this composition right before selecting the algal species for converting into crude oil.
3. Conversion through High Pressure and Temperature
It’s an alternative approach to extracting or processing crude oil out of algae. It’s a continuous process where the wet algae are exposed to high pressures and temperatures of 3000 pounds/square inch and 350 degrees Celsius, respectively.
The output results in crude oil, which is further used for aviation, diesel, or gasoline. This process can successfully convert around 70% of the carbon in algae into usable fuel. The other products extracted from it include clean water, some nutrients, and fuel gas.
Another process of converting algae into natural gas is in action. All of the tests have proven that algae can produce renewable natural gas that can be used in pipelines and for power generation.
The processes used for this extraction are catalytic hydrothermal gasification, anaerobic digestion, and pyrolysis. Natural gas or biogas mainly comprises carbon dioxide and methane, along with low amounts of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and hydrogen sulfide.
Macroalgae is a high source of methane as compared to plant biomass. Therefore, extracting natural gas from algae is technically more viable than other fuels. In addition, the protein and carbohydrates in microalgae can be processed to convert into biogas by using the process of anaerobic digestion.
These processes break down into steps such as hydrolysis, methanogenesis, and fermentation. Methane stands as an important constituent for producing natural gas with algae. And it can be extracted from algae through gasification and pyrolysis methods. Under such methods, extract methane from algae at high temperatures and pressure.
Many algae species serve the food industry as well. They fulfill many purposes in this industry, and the healthy species are eaten individually or cooked as ingredients. Some algae are even added to specific products to enhance the nutritional factors.
It’s vegan in nature, and people use it as an egg substitute. The food craftsmen also use it to enhance the texture of a dish. So, this stands as the most widely liked among all of the uses of algae. Here are a few of the products or food items that use algae as their prime ingredient:
Algae supplements are created by preserving all the minerals and vitamins from the plant. These nutrients are important for humans to seamlessly run bodily functions.
One among all species is blue-green algae, which is preferable in a protein supplement. This algae also has properties to treat high blood pressure conditions. There is evidence that blue-green algae support the immune system of your body.
Some of the other health benefits of algae supplements include:
- Improved brain health
- Supports emotional wellness
- Treats the cholesterol problems
- Helps regulate blood sugar levels
Nori is an edible seaweed that is favorably used in Japanese cuisine. It’s made up of an algae species, namely, red algae. The Japanese people use it commonly in their sushi rolls, as it adds delight to the experience.
Apart from the taste, red algae is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids and can offer the same nutrients to your body as that of a fish.
3. Direct Consumption
According to researchers, some species of algae, such as dulse and edible red algae, can be eaten directly, whether fresh or dried. You will open your body to ample nutrients after consuming these edible algae. They have an abundance of calcium, iron, vitamins, magnesium, and selenium. They are great sources of iodine as well.
Dulse, in specific, helps improve your eyesight, thyroid gland, and high blood pressure conditions. Red algae, on the other hand, has properties to reduce cholesterol levels, support blood sugar levels, improve thyroid functions, and benefit skin health.
This signifies the major importance of algae. As per scientific tests, photosynthesizing algae are accountable for generating 70% of all atmospheric oxygen. They use the process of photosynthesis to produce and release oxygen, as it’s the by-product of the process. We all know that photosynthesis takes place only during the daytime when sunlight exposure is at its peak.
Oxygen levels in the ocean can’t be measured, as most of Earth’s waters are still unexplored. But it’s observed that the oxygen levels dramatically vary from season to season, which is assumed to be because of algal stimuli.
The intensity of light, carbon dioxide concentration, temperature, water movement, and increase in phosphorus & nitrogen are some factors responsible for influencing oxygen production by algae.
Algae produce oxygen only in the topmost layer of water when in water. And when algae die, it sinks to the bottom and stops oxygen production. After dying out, algae decompose by the bacteria that feed on any leftover oxygen in the algae.
Scientists have discovered an ecological role of green algae, that it can be used as a pollution indicator for determining the water quality. Moreover, many algae indicators are currently being used to assess the environmental status.
Diatoms, a species of algae, have been very commonly used for monitoring water quality since 1991. These algae live in wider ecological conditions and colonize the most suitable habitats. As a result, they give indications of environmental changes.
Algae respond quickly to the pollutants in water, as they are bio-organisms that purify the water bodies. They can absorb radioactive pollutants, heavy metals, and organic and inorganic pollutants to maintain water quality.
As we’re already aware of algae being biological indicators, it’s not hard to believe that it can also detect climate change effects.
Aquatic ecosystems are highly responsive to climate change, which is a factual understanding. Therefore, as algae inhabit the aquatic world, it’s a great choice to start the indication processes from them.
Climate change in waters can increase ocean temperatures or runoff from the glacial melt. Irrespective of climate change’s effects, they will first show themselves to the algae.
For a better understanding, you must know that algae respond to environmental changes very rapidly. Therefore, researchers study algae species in water to document the effects of climate change.
The siliceous algal microfossils are used for determining important data about past climates. High arctic regions are accountable as important areas in determining global warming effects. Therefore, the dissolved organic carbon of algae in the lakes near tree lines of the arctic region is essential for evaluating the climate change intensity.
Algae Supports Habitat Provision
Habitat provisioning is one of the major ecological processes responsible for supporting the structure of ecosystems, biodiversity, and their functioning. Following that, it also supports other ecosystem services, including water quality maintenance for pests, food provisioning, disease control, and others.
In simple words, habitat provision ensures that specific organisms get adequate environmental conditions to survive. Before explaining to you the bit on how algae support habitat provision, let’s discuss a bit about the habitat of algae itself.
Habitat of Algae
As per algae species are concerned, they can grow in habitats such as aquatic, terrestrial or semi-aquatic.
Terrestrial algae are often found on the Earth’s inside and occur mostly on moist soil, tree barks, damp wood, or cliffs/rocks. There are two types of terrestrial algae, cryptophytes and saprophytes.
Aquatic and semi-aquatic algae, as the name suggests, are found in all forms of water. They often grow in small trenches, big rivers, ponds, and oceans. They are often grouped as marine algae, saltwater algae, or freshwater algae.
There are also some types of algae that grow in unusual habitats. Some of those algae and their habitat provisions are:
- Thermal algae: Such algae do not grow even at a high temperature of over 85 degrees celsius and need an even hotter surrounding.
- Snow algae: These algae prefer to grow on snow mountain peaks, over ice, and in extremely low temperatures.
- Aerophytic algae: Such algae prefer growing on leaves, barks, or animals. Sometimes these algae also grow on rocky surfaces.
- Symbiotic Algae: Algae under this habitat live with animals and other plants symbiotically. For example, Cladophora algae on snails, Zoochlorella in hydra, and Anabaena with Azolla.
Algae Fulfilling Needs for Habitat Provision
Algae are important organisms that deliver many biological services within aquatic and terrestrial environments. They produce oxygen, act at the bottom of the food chain, promote nutrient cycling, and support habitat provisioning for the marine fauna that are dependent on it.
Algae support habitat provision by promoting the growth & spread of aquatic life. Algae offer habitat for various aquatic species. For example, you will find many ocean forests with brown seaweed in large quantities, becoming a habitat for several organisms. Such forests are called Kelp forests.
Overpopulation of algae can damage the ocean’s natural ecosystem, but a unified spread of it can help the fish population in both fresh and saltwater. Hence, you can conclude that algae are critical for habitat provisioning for many aquatic lives.
Algae are put to good use for fish farming practices. They are used for purifying the water where the fish are farmed. As a result, the water can be reused multiple times and then dumped into the sea without polluting the aquatic environment.
The sea farmers cultivate certain species of algae to feed them to the oysters. They use algae to replicate the food chain in their fish farms.
As algae are at the bottom of the food chain, they are a good source of nutrients for fish. Moreover, fishes are adapted to consume algae as their prime food resource. A small number of algae in the fish diet can positively result in terms of the growth and performance of the fish.
Fish farms are actively using this technique to escalate their farming practices with the healthy growth of their fish. Some algae species that are good for feeding fish are haematococcus and spirulina.
You can also check about spirulina fish food.
People prefer to use old algae as fertilizer for their home gardens or farming lands. Apart from the nutritional benefits when fresh, the old algae also serves well as a healthy fertilizer. In addition, they improve the soil conditions and promote the healthy growth of the plants on it.
Algae releases nutrients into the soil when used as a fertilizer. When it decomposes or breaks down, all of the macro and micronutrients are released and absorbed by the soil.
Marine algae are commonly used as fertilizer by farmers who have their lands near the sea. In addition, some specific species, such as red & brown algae, are commonly used as farmland fertilizers.
These algae species are rich in potassium which enhances root growth and improves the drought resistance of plants. Potassium is an important nutrient for the soil, without which plant growth will take a hit.
If you’re farming rice crops, then blue & green algae are the ones you should use as fertilizers. They serve the same or even higher amount of potassium than the red & brown algae. Apart from potassium, this algae helps restore the lost nutrients in the soil and boosts the nitrogen content.
Blue & green algae have anti-fungal benefits that can replace your need for using chemical treatments on seeds. Thus, the plants will grow healthy and will maintain their nutrient quotient.
The best part about using algae as fertilizer is that it reduces soil loss during heavy rains. Dried algae replicate the action of soil humus. It binds the soil and increases its water retention capacity of it. Thus, the loss of soil is prevented. Beyond that, it also helps in soil aeration, which increases the ability of roots to absorb nutrients easily.
What are the Harmful or Negative Effects of Algae?
You shouldn’t consume it blindly if you’re not knowledgeable about varying algae species. Consuming harmful algal blooms can cause skin irritation, gastrointestinal disorders, and other serious health conditions. In some cases, the livestock and pets can undergo serious repercussions upon consuming these harmful algal blooms.
You risk experiencing these effects by direct consumption, physical contact with them while swimming, inhaling their airborne toxins, or drinking the contaminated water.
What are Harmful Types of Algae
Red tides and cyanobacteria are harmful types of algae that are critical for human health and aquatic ecosystems. These algal blooms are toxic and can cause lethal effects on your health. Be aware of consuming or getting in contact with any species of algae without proper knowledge.
This is a complete elaboration on how important algae is to mankind. There are different ways different industries or individuals are using algae. It’s a natural plant-like organism responsible for humans’ survival. Earlier, if you have thoughts on algae as a random plant that you should avoid, you will think twice before ignoring it.
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