by Dr. Mark Edwards

Nearly every human society that lived near an ocean, estuary or lake used algae for food, fodder for their animals, fertilizer for their fields and medicines for cuts, bruises and stomach ailments. Dried algae provided the first portable convenience food and probably served as wampum in trade, along with white shell beads. Archaeological evidence shows early Neanderthals around the Mediterranean ate algae along with shellfish.

Algae’s extraordinary productivity capability has been recognized as a potential solution for global hunger for over a century. Excitement for algae as a global food solution has bubbled up several times and each time has burst in ignoble fashion. In the 1890s, experts worried about Thomas Malthus’ prediction that population growth would outstrip food and recommended nontraditional food sources including yeast, fungi and algae.

A similar initiative came and went after World War I. Scientists continued their search for sustainable food sources. After the Second World War, over half the world’s population was impoverished and hungry and experts recommended non-conventional agriculture as a way out of the Malthusian trap. Algae emerged as the best available antidote and numerous pilot projects attempted algal production.

Researchers announced they were able to grow nutritious algae using inexpensive materials under controlled laboratory conditions in 1948. When grown in optimal conditions—sunny, warm, shallow ponds fed by simple CO2—Chlorella converted around 20% of available solar energy into plant biomass containing over 50% protein when dried. Unlike most plants, Chlorella’s protein was complete with the 10 amino acids then considered essential and it was packed with calories, fat and vitamins.

Chlorella with light microscopy. Photo: Dr. Barry H. Rosen

The press became ebullient about algae’s potential and Colliers’ Magazine sketched a farm of the future where fat coils of glass pipe produced thousands of tons of protein in automated farms. Experts, not to be outdone by journalists, created plausible scenarios where algae would solve world food supplies with near zero cost.

Unfortunately, researchers tripped on Murphy’s Law and everything that could go wrong did. Instead of being robust, Chlorella turned out to be a very temperamental organism and simply stopped growing with small changes in temperature, density, light, pH and nutrients. The plant was so fragile that harvest with centrifuges damaged the biomass as did the heat necessary for demoisturizing. Chlorella’s hard cell walls made it indigestible, which added the cost and energy of heat or additional mechanical processing.

While most researchers gave up on their quest to solve world hunger with algae, NASA investigated the use of algae in the 1950s as a way to feed astronauts during long spaceflights. In what has been called the “Algae Race,” Soviet and American projects competed to develop a self-contained aerospace life-support system that would use algae to convert astronauts’ waste into clean air, water and perhaps food. Scientists were unable to solve the contamination and weight problems and the program was scrapped.

As part of this effort, at least one research paper was published in 1961 in the Journal of Nutrition titled “Algae Feeding in Humans.” It sums up the sparse research on algae as a human food. The U.S. Army research team examined Chlorella from Japan that was grown in ponds, harvested, centrifuged, washed, heated and vacuum dried to a green powder. Their analysis showed the composition to be: protein: 59%, fat (oils): 19%, carbohydrates: 13%, moisture: 3% and ash: 6%.

The authors found that algal food supplements of up to 100 grams per day were tolerated by their five human subjects. The green algae used, Chlorella, gave a strong spinach-like flavor to the food supplemented. The most acceptable preparations were cookies, chocolate cake, gingerbread and cold milk. Larger supplements created stomach problems but symptoms disappeared after the supplements were discontinued. The team concluded that dried algae can be tolerated as a food supplement but further processing would be necessary before it could become a major food source. These findings relegated algae to a small sector of the health foods market. American research on algae as a food source practically evaporated.

Fortunately for mankind, the Green Revolution began in the 1950s and algal foods flourished again due to three nearly equally contributing factors:

  • The invention of stronger pumps for irrigation
  • New technologies for making synthetic fertilizers
  • Advances in molecular genetics which created high-yield seeds

Stronger pumps and bigger pipes enabled farmers to heavily over-draft groundwater for irrigation. Farmers also piled more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides onto their fields. The Green Revolution had begun and food grain yields doubled on an eroding foundation of cheap fossil fuels and fresh water.

Non-agricultural sources of food were unnecessary due to advances in food grain production. Consumers became conditioned by science fiction, journalists and movies to distrust non-traditional food sources.

Science fiction authors both popularized the concept of synthetic foods and anticipated unfavorable consumer reactions and unintended consequences such as the Killer Tomato and Frankenfoods. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, 1895, War of the Worlds, 1898, and The Food of the Gods, 1905, Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, 1932 and Ward Moore’s Greener than You Think, 1947, all warned against biotechnological panaceas.

Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! in 1966 and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, in 1968 explicated the horrific outcomes of unrestricted population growth. Harrison’s apocalyptic scenario included plankton, yeast and algae as base foods for the starving masses. Chlorella had a fishy taste so marketers decided to produce an improved version they branded as Soylent Green. This led to the 1973 film adaption of Harrison’s book, Soylent Green, which suggests the algal biomass culture use not only human waste but recycled humans. Even with cannibalism, the invention could not feed everyone. Water and fertilizer shortages, plague, pestilence and pesticide poisonings ruined crops and polluted water. The greenhouse effect intensified, increasing flooding, violent storms and drought. Art indeed imitated life.

A remake of Soylent Green would set the algal industry back at least a decade. While science fiction authors were spurring public fears of Frankenfoods, people were experiencing green slime first hand in their aquariums, pools and recreational waterways. The press was eager to convey the sensational perils of algae that created deadly toxins, killer red tides and dead zones which killed many living organisms.

President Jimmy Carter initiated several algal projects to move the U.S. towards energy independence but the focus became shifting electrical grid production from oil to coal. The last remnant of Carter’s algal research, the 18-year Aquatic Species Program, was terminated by the Clinton administration as they made the political decision to shift government R&D from algal biofuels to corn ethanol. The unfortunate result of this policy was that universities and their faculty were not able to receive funded grants to study algae for over a decade.

Algae research received a knock-out blow in the 1990s when Congress ignored science and bet the U.S. biofuel future on corn ethanol. Corn received subsidies and incentives in a wave of greenwashing promises that ethanol would be sustainable, renewable, clean and displace oil imports. Existing research showed corn ethanol to be the opposite of these claims. Each acre of corn production erodes six tons of soil, pollutes groundwater and releases 2.5 tons of CO2 plus nitric oxides, particulates and smog. The 9 billion gallons of ethanol produced in 2008 offset less than 3% of U.S. oil imports at the cost of billions in subsidies and environmental pollution. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 set a renewable fuels standard mandating more renewable production but left algae feedstocks out of the renewable energy policy.

Algae reappeared as a biofuel solution in 2008 as two industry associations emerged followed by an industry trade journal, Algae Industry Magazine. The first industry meetings of the Algal Biomass Organization and the National Algae Association in 2007 attracted a small number of scientists and a few biofuel entrepreneurs. The 2009 Algal Biomass Organization Summit in San Diego attracted over 800 and received international press coverage.

Also boosting algae’s positioning were announcements that Bill Gates, the Rockefeller Foundation and Exxon were investing big in algae biofuels. DARPA’s announcement that their project with General Atomics had produced $2 per gallon fuel excited the industry. Several airlines announced successful test flights with algal fuels and Sapphire Energy sponsored a cross-country trip with an algal-fueled Prius. Sapphire Energy announced they were on track to produce a billion gallons of algal gasoline a year by 2020 or sooner.

The EPA Renewable Fuel Standard recognized algal biofuels as a qualifying advanced biofuel capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% compared with gasoline. However, federal lawmakers did not anticipate algal biofuels when granting tax incentives to other biofuels. The Algal Biomass Organization asked Congress to give algal biofuels tax code parity with other biofuels. The letter urges the committee to move on the Algae-based Renewable Fuel Promotion Act of 2009, S. 1250, stating that incentives are necessary to level the playing field among biofuels to reduce risk for entrepreneurs and potential investors.

The politics of algae face a challenging future because algae must compete economically as well as ecologically with other green energy solutions. Other renewable energy solutions produce electricity but not gasoline, diesel or jet fuel. Algae stands alone as the viable solution for the move towards energy independence with liquid transportation fuels necessary for ships, planes, trucks and planes for the next 50 years.