Algae are one the most diverse form of living organisms with photosynthetic ability. They are the intermediaries in characteristics between plants and animals. They may range in size from a microscopic flagellate Micromonas to macro-sized giant kelp of up to 200 feet. The characteristic features of algae such as efficient photosynthetic ability, rapid growth rate, high nutrient accumulation, and ability to grow in diverse environments with minimal requirements, make them a potential candidate for a wide range of applications related to energy, environment, food and health. Some of the key utilities of algae are described below:
1. Biomass for renewable energy:
The key issue concerned with the production of bioenergy from the plants was a competition between food and energy, as the bioenergy plants such as sugar cane, corn and sunflower are also used as food. Algae solves this problem with its ability to grow in wastewater and barren lands with 30 times more energy production potential in comparison to traditionally used crops.
2. Multiple energy products:
Algae comprise upon three basic components, carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. The high lipid content in the form of triacylglycerol is ideal for conversion into biodiesel. There are several other energy products that can be produced using algal biomass including biogas, biohydrogen, and crude bio-oil.
3. Diverse habitats:
Algae are one of the most diversely available organisms with its habitats varying from oceans, freshwater bodies, wastewater etc. This diversity enables their convenient farming with minimal requirements.
4. Nutritious food & feed source:
The edible species of algae such as spirulina are known as the super food. Algae are rich in proteins, vitamins, minerals etc. that makes it a valuable food for human and feed for animals and fish.
5. Production of bioplastics:
Algae are the natural biofactories to produce biodegradable plastics that are termed as “green plastic” by the producers. Some water bottle companies have already started its production at commercial scale.
6. Minimization of pollution by CO2 sequestration:
Carbon emission in the form of CO2 is the main culprit for global warming. Algae have the ability to sequester CO2 naturally. It can absorb more carbon compared to trees owing to its high growth rate, photosynthetic ability, and ability to cover more surface area.
7. Fertilizers for enhanced crop production:
Algae being a living organism, is an excellent fertilizer for crops because it gets readily breaks into absorbable components in soil, releasing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that promotes plant growth.
8. Algae as a nutraceutical agent:
Algae are the source of various bioactive compounds that are used by the pharmaceutical industries. The antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and anti-cancerous properties play a vital role in developing therapeutics against a variety of pathogens.
9. Wastewater treatment:
Water availability is the biggest concern for humanity in this era. Recycling of water has become inevitable to meet the requirements. Algae serves as a potential candidate for wastewater treatment and bioremediation, using its ability to accumulate heavy metals and use the waste organic compounds for their growth.
10. High-value compounds:
Algae are used at commercial scale for the production of rare and valuable commodities such as pigments (phycobilins etc.), astaxanthin, carotene, eicosahexaenoic acid, and other algal extracts that are used in cosmetics industry.