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High value chemicals from algae

Dr Joe Bennett from the Biorenewables Development Centre talks about potential uses for algae
Algae are something that most of us are familiar with. We all know what seaweed is and we might have seen algal blooms on our garden ponds. But not many of us will have given much thought to the role that photosynthetic organisms like algae could play in our future economy, as we move away from our reliance on fossil fuels to a bioeconomy. Unlike agricultural crops, algal cultivation doesn’t require land. Algae can be cultivated at sea, in tanks and even in an urban environment - because not soil is needed! Algae have uses in a whole variety of areas, from energy and food, to fine chemicals and medicines. Some algae make hydrocarbons that could be used to produce fuels for vehicles.
To provide energy, algae need to be grown at a large scale, which is something we’ve been working on in a research project called GENIALG. In this project we’ve been designing high-yielding seaweed cultivation systems with the aim of increasing the production and sustainable exploitation of two biomass yielding species of European seaweed, commonly known as sugar kelp and sea lettuce. The majority of commercial seaweeds are produced for sale as animal feed and natural soil fertilisers. But they have also been shown to contain a number of higher value products. Another part of the GENIALG project explored bio-refining - the process of separating different products from a crude feedstock.
It’s like oil refining, where crude oil is taken and separated into various useful petrochemical products. Except with biorefining your starting material is a biomass - in this case algae. Many of the medicinal drugs that we use today were originally derived from plants and, because algae are similar to plants in many ways, they offer an opportunity to make useful medicines and other products under more controlled conditions and potentially on a larger scale. Algae can also be bio-refined to produce high value products which include those used in food manufacturing (such as nori sheets, used in sushi making) and animal feeds, pigments, vitamins and antioxidants. You can even use seaweed in beer making.
Algae already represent an exciting source of many useful products, and the sector is likely to grow as more is discovered about these fascinating organisms.

Most of us know what seaweed is, but how can photosynthetic organisms like algae help us move away from our reliance on fossil fuels?

This video explores some of the potential uses of algae and the opportunities it could offer us in our mission to become more sustainable.

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Bioeconomy: How Renewable Resources Can Help the Future of Our Planet

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