Microscopic algae are offering revolutionary solutions to cleantech, food innovation, medicine, green energy and cosmetics.


Unseen, unsuspected, they have been shaping the conditions on earth for the past three and a half billion years. Microalgae produce half the oxygen in the atmosphere, consuming greenhouse gases in return. These unicellular photosynthetic life forms are extremely adaptive, able to grow in all sorts of environmental conditions, even unsuitable ones like wastewater ponds. By taking in light, water and CO2, they grow faster than any land plant and produce far more energy and biomass. It was only a matter of time before they attracted the attention of human ingenuity. From food, to biofuel, to water treatment, their untapped potential could help humanity face its greatest challenges.


Getting Beyond the Biofuels

One of the first industrial applications of microalgae was biofuel. Unlike fossil fuels, energy derived from plants is renewable and, with the right techniques, eco-friendly. The microalgae’s high growth rate and fast generation of lipids allow the production of biodiesel, reaching an energy yield up to thirty times higher than various oil plants employed. Nevertheless, this advantage is still a long way from being economically viable for biorefineries: the costs of production are expensive and the energy produced is relatively limited.

Besides alternative sources of energy, the microscopic algae have been harvested for food supplements. Its inherent bioactive components provide many health benefits. The abundance of vitamins contained, such as vitamin B6, B12, C and E, as well as minerals such as potassium, iron and magnesium, make them ideal additions to our often-unbalanced diets. In fact, eastern Asian and Mexican cultures have been enjoying the nutritional power of algae for thousands of years. It’s about time we all hop on that train.


From Food Supplements to Novel Food

Over the last decade, the implementation of microalgae in biotechnology has increased exponentially, prompting a variety of uses. Alga-based food supplements are seeing a surge and today can be found in healthy foods sections at local supermarkets, sold as capsules, powders, and liquids. The culinarily-awakened among us are rarely unaware of Spirulina, a blue-green microalgae species which is even considered for future missions to Mars as dietary support. It’s rich in Omega-3 fatty acids essential to the brain and helpful in preventing cardiovascular diseases, making it a welcome alternative to fish and other animal products. Us non-vegans should no less be thrilled by the anticarcinogenic and antioxidative properties of this superfood. Among these powerful antioxidants is Astaxanthin, a reddish pigment considered to have vast health benefits, not only for the treatment of cancer, but for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

As is often the case with human ambition, using microalgae as food supplements is simply not grand enough. Its potential to serve as actual food is becoming ever more evident, ever more feasible and, with the overpopulation and diminishing natural resources, ever more necessary. The protein content of some microalgae is higher than meat, poultry and dairy products. Given that they also provide no meager portion of carbohydrates and lipids, consuming the whole biomass instead of extracted components is tempting, to say the least. Some food innovation companies have had the audacity to sell food products made from microalgae, such as the vegan salmon by the French company Odontella, claimed to taste like real salmon and spare us the impact on biodiversity and ecology.


The Macro Power of Microalgae

With such exceptional properties, it is not surprising that microalgae are increasingly being used for medicinal purposes. Novel methods are constantly developed for synthesizing microalgae-based compounds, which serve as vaccines, immune-regulators, antibodies, enzymes, and hormones, to name a few. They appear beneficial to the treatment of wounds, stomach ulcers, and high blood sugar levels. Despite our grasp of these various medical benefits, there is reason for both caution and hope: as of yet, we do not fully know the active principles in these biopharmaceutical components. What we understand seems like the tip of an iceberg.

Besides the direct personal gains for which we look up to microalgae, could these peculiar creatures become a key ally in our endeavor to heal and preserve the environment? All major industries, from food, to fashion, to construction, produce disconcerting quantities of wastewater. Current decontamination processes are costly and hardly eco-friendly, when existent at all. In contrast, the use of microalgae is already showing some exciting results: they absorb nutrients from the water, and their ability to thrive in harsh conditions make them ideal candidates for the treatment of polluted water. For example, nitrate, a contaminant found in wastewater, is a major source of nutrition for algae. Man’s trash is a microalgae’s treasure…

We see in these plant-like organisms a potential solution for many of our urgent problems, so it might come as a surprise that among the industries inspired by microalgae is the cosmetics sector. The last few years have witnessed the emergence of products in the form of powders, oils and pastes, whether for UV protection, anti-aging, or anti-wrinkle. Aesthetic advantages such as firmness and brightness of skin are also believed to reside within the reach of these multi-talented algae. According to the vision expressed by Yemoja, an Israeli startup specializing in microalgae-based products, extracted components might prove an ideal replacement for current synthetic and chemical ingredients. With improvements in mass cultivation and the reduction of production costs, in the years to come this marine alternative could well become central to such a colossal market.


A Future of Possibilities

The exploitation of the power of microalgae is still in its early phases. There is much to learn and many challenges to overcome before it is implemented on a large scale. But the great unknown of this microcosmos bears countless opportunities. We currently utilize a few dozen types of microalgae. Meanwhile, there are about 200,000 species out there.

The microalgae is a rising star in a world that is overpopulated, whose resources and fossil fuels are depleted, and whose natural environment is dwindling; a rising star for a society that wishes to live a healthy and harmonious life. The adaptiveness and endurance of microalgae, the high growth rate and energy production, the abundance of bioactive components, and the ability to clean water and air, together hold great promises and great hope for the future. The potential exists, now all we need is the scientists and entrepreneurs to step up.