What makes farmed salmon pink, saves endangered sharks, and protects coral reefs? Algae.

The holy grail in green tech is developing sustainable, cost-effective alternatives to gasoline and other petroleum-based energy sources.

One of the most promising sources is algae – that’s the hope at least. A sustainable future for biofuels is a long way off.

But the environmental benefits of algae production go far beyond biofuels. Companies have used algae to develop and sell cosmetics, food additives, and even nutritional supplements.

These manufacturers are increasing their yields and efficiency – and inching toward the potential of biofuels – by growing algae in closed-system photobioreactors (PBRs), which limit exposure to contamination that is an inherent risk of open systems. By using glass tubing in the PBRs, algae companies gain a long-lasting, cost-effective solution that won’t warp or cloud and is easy to clean.

Here are some of the ways that this algae grown in PBRs supports a healthier planet.

Cutting carbon emissions – eventually

While interest in using algae as a source of fuel dates to the 1950s, it wasn’t until the oil crisis of the 1970s that engineers seriously considered algae for biodiesel. At the time, policy makers saw development of algal fuel as a way to reduce reliance on foreign oil and diversify energy sources.

That rationale remains. In fact, the U.S. military purchases a significant amount of jet fuel derived from biodiesel because it believes diverse fuel sources make the country more secure. Unfortunately, the fuel isn’t cost effective – yet. One of the biggest factors holding biofuels back is the relatively low cost of petroleum products.

And while the pace of development is dictated by economics, environmentalists hold out hope for biofuels that would reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming. Algae producers, however, have pivoted toward the extraction of high-value products while continuing to wait for a breakthrough on the energy front.

Taking pressure off fisheries

A growing global population means a growing demand for food. Fisheries, in particular, are under pressure. Aquaculture, better known as fish farming, relieves pressure on wild fish stocks. But farmed salmon, among the most valuable of aquaculture products, doesn’t have that pinkish-orange color that its wild cousins get from eating red krill. To get that salmon color, fish farmers use algae-derived astaxanthin, a relative of beta-carotene. Astaxanthin is also sold as a nutritional supplement for humans, and is one of the most powerful antioxidants around.

SCHOTT has partnered with Algatechnologies, Ltd., one of the world’s leading producers of astaxanthin, to research the effect of tubing sizes and geometries on yields of this valuable food additive and nutritional supplement.

Saving sharks

Cosmetics companies use a compound called squalene in deodorants, moisturizers, and skin care cream. Unfortunately, one of the easiest places to get squalene has long been shark livers. Many cosmetic companies, responding to concerns that some of the species most commonly hunted for their livers have been over-fished, have pledged to buy squalene exclusively derived from plants and vegetables – and algae is one of them.

Protecting coral reefs

Coral reefs serve as a fantastic reminder of the natural beauty and biodiversity of the world. Unfortunately, coral reefs are also fragile. Scientists have observed coral bleaching – essentially the death of coral reefs, during which the coral turns white. Much of this is the result of global warming, but sunscreens from tourists visiting reefs also contribute. Because algae often grow in areas with intense sunlight, they produce a natural sunscreen to protect them from UV rays. Scientists are now researching ways to harness this natural sunscreen as an alternative to potentially harmful sunscreens on the market.

Wastewater treatment

Nitrogen and phosphorus enter sewer systems as human waste, and as runoff from fertilized lawns. For plants, they are nutrients. That’s not such a good thing when wastewater treatment plants can’t remove enough nitrogen and phosphorus. When discharged into waterways, those elements can cause harmful algae blooms that imperil marine life.

Wastewater treatment pioneer Clearas Water Recovery relies on SCHOTT glass for PBRs that remove nitrogen and phosphorus using algae. The results are significant. Clearas’ system can remove more than a third of nitrogen from water, and more than 90 percent of phosphorus, leaving the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus below detection limits.

Nutritional supplements

Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, improve heart health, and are essential to brain health. But the human body cannot make them. The only way to get them is through consumption of fish, fish oil, or nut oils.

ecoduna has recently tapped SCHOTT to supply glass tubes for Europe’s largest facility dedicated to the production of omega-3 fatty acids – all from algae.

It takes almost 9 pounds of fish to generate 1 quart of fish oil. Deriving omega-3s from algae not only takes pressure off fisheries, but it saves a massive amount of energy dedicated to fishing and processing.

The future is still being written

This list isn’t complete. Scientists continue to research dozens of new applications for algae, including as a replacement for petroleum products in the plastics industry. SCHOTT continues to work closely with manufacturers to develop systems that maximize yields by varying the shape and size of tubes.

Algae are fascinating. Glass enables manufacturers to grow them faster and in greater numbers. Who knew that such tiny organisms could have such a big impact?

September 19, 2017


Suzann Erben
SCHOTT North America, Inc.