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Algae’s best times may lie ahead

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By John Bartlit

An algae bloom, also known as an algal bloom, is but one of the ways this old, old life form makes news. An algae bloom can look like a floating green garden, a red tide or a muddy brown oil spill.
Algae is the collective term for a large and diverse group of aquatic plants that were early ramblers on Earth. Besides a long history, algae also have a rare ability to grow fast. An algae bloom is a rapid growth in the population of algae in a local aquatic system. Depending on the algae, blooms have special colors and can do great harm to an ecosystem. The toxic effects of some algae blooms can kill fish and mammals and threaten urban water supplies. Researchers are finding ways to combat the damage from these sudden overgrowths.
Meanwhile, other researchers are busy finding ways to get more good from the good algae, of which there are many. The oddities of algae may help fill two of the modern world’s fast growing needs – food and fuels.
Algae were food fit for guests in ancient China. Similar discoveries were made in Japan, Hawaii and even cropped up in Ireland.
After World War II, a taste for seaweed, or “nori,” spread to the US with
Japanese food. As the land gets more crowded, interest grows in the possibilities of algae for food.
Algae also have long and varied connections with fuels. Contrary to popular lore, the life forms in nature that ended up as petroleum were not chiefly dinosaurs, but were the algae of which we speak and tiny aquatic animals called zooplankton. Natural forces buried these raw materials, processed them in the Earth for ages, and left them stored there as crude oil.
That was then. Now we explore shortcuts.  
In the near term, algae yield a different kind of oil, as do many vegetables. Familiar vegetable oils of commerce include palm oil, soybean oil, rapeseed (canola) oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil. These oils can be used as food or as fuels.
If you dig the least bit into vegetables and their oils, you quickly come to the word “lipids.”
Lipids comprise a large group of fatty and waxy molecules in plants and animals that store energy and provide structure in cell membranes.
Cooks and auto mechanics know that fats and waxes do not dissolve in water. This property makes lipids the right stuff for cell structures inside our bodies that are 60 percent water.
Algae are famous producers of lipids. The most prolific varieties of algae have lipid contents up to 40 percent of their total weight. This oddity, coupled with the plants’ historic feats of growing, explains the rise of research and business interests in algae. Algae’s means of growing fast may be sinister in algae blooms, but are golden for making oil.
Researchers apply the latest insights. Modern genetics offers ways to change the DNA of algae to optimize their lipid content and growth rate under poor growing conditions. The goal is to maximize the oil produced from algae using lands and water of marginal quality.
As always, the carbon cycle rolls on. Algae fuels or biofuels, as did most fossil fuels, come from plants. Plants absorb CO2 from the air and use the carbon to build molecules in their structures. When burned, carbon fuels yield energy and return to the air the CO2 the plants took from the air.
Fossil fuels return to the air CO2 that was stowed away underground for ages since it was last free. In contrast, algae fuels return CO2 that was free in the air several weeks ago, before the algae took it out, which in effect adds nothing.
     Such humble pathways lead algae into world affairs.