Scientists and businesses have started cultivating microscopic green algae on a large scale to explore how they could in fact improve our lives in a sustainable way.
Although they may be the scourge of swimming pools, microalgae contain a variety of valuable oils, proteins, antioxidants and vitamins, making them a highly productive natural resource that can be used in animal and human food, cosmetics and even plastics.
Scientists are working on a European research project – fittingly named “MIRACLES” – that aims to make the dream of using microalgae in an economically viable manner.
In the Netherlands, the Wageningen university and research centre, which specialises in healthy food and living environment, has been studying microalgae in transparent tubes filled with sea water for the past 20 years.
The good news is that microalgae are very easy to work with. All they need to live and multiply very rapidly are sea water, carbon dioxide, basic nutrients and sunlight.
Therefore, microalgae have the potential to spawn a whole new kind of agriculture that does not rely on arable land or fresh water.
The MIRACLES project builds upon the experience of its business partners, such as Fitoplancton Marino, which is a Spanish company that generates about two tonnes of dry microalgae matter each year. Its researchers have studied hundreds of microalgae species to select those with the best properties, and then grow them in massive computer-controlled photobioreactors.
The aim of the project is to keep innovating and to make each step of the production chain – from cultivation to harvesting, processing and marketing – cheaper and more efficient.