The term algae covers a wide range of diverse organisms that can be generally described as eukaryotic protists (a difficult group to define), that are distinct from plants but are typically photosynthetic and aquatic. They can either be microscopic single-celled microalgae or larger more complex multi-cellular macroalgae (seaweeds). They can be found worldwide in both freshwater and marine habitats across a wide range of environments. Like plants, the majority of algae use photosynthesis to capture light energy to convert inorganic substances into simple sugars and then other molecules.
A long history of use
Seaweed was being eaten at least 1,500 years ago in Japan and it remains an important food in many cultures where it is valued for its high mineral content (e.g. Nori and laverbread). Closer to home in Europe, kelp was farmed extensively from the 17th to 19th Centuries for processing into soda for the linen industry and into iodine for medicinal purposes. Microalgae have been used for decades as a food supplement (e.g. spirulina) and as a feedstock for farmed shellfish and finfish. Compounds extracted from both microalgae and seaweed today find their way into everyday foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Exploring the power of algae
Algal products are again being commercially explored and developed with the help of a growing global industry using the latest algal biotechnologies. This involves the mass cultivation of micro- and macroalgae and conversion of the harvested biomass into a range of value-added products. The EnAlgae project aims to develop technologies that will be both economically-viable and environmentally-friendly ways so that the production algal biomass can be rolled out on industrial scales.
Meeting future clean energy needs
A big driver of algal biotechnology is the search for clean energy. EC legislation to increase the proportion of energy generated from renewable sources (EC Directive 2009/28/EC) provides a clear incentive to reduce our current reliance on fossil fuels.
Find out more about the growth and harvesting of algae for commercial use.