Imagine the Future of Algae

by Robert Henrikson

How will algae change the world and improve our lives?

Imagine our future living in cities where buildings are covered with photosynthetic membranes and vertical gardens, collecting the sun’s energy and producing food and bioproducts for urban citizens. Imagine greening desert coastlines and producing food for millions of people. Imagine algae systems that recover and recycle polluting wastes into high value animal food, fuel and biofertilizers.

For thousands of years in our history humans have harvested algae like seaweeds along the coastlines. Near lakes and rivers across the world, people harvested freshwater microscopic algae for food and biofertilizers.

Just in the past 30 years, with the commercialization of microalgae beginning in the 1970s, thousands of new algae-based products based have emerged.

Because nature’s first photosynthetic life form is over 20 times more productive than conventional crops, and can use cheap and abundant resources, awareness has grown that algae can create a future of abundance through affordable and locally produced food and energy.

In the past five years, more than a billion dollars have flowed into algae biofuel development. Even though scalable, commercial biofuel from algae may be years away, this investment is creating innovative systems and technologies, making algae production more affordable, stimulating interest in growing algae for many products. Big investments in algae production will grow our future food and its own packaging.

International Algae Competition is a prism for visioning the future of algae.

This future of algae offers rich and diverse opportunities that will impact every aspect of our lives. As a participatory design game, Algae Competition invites global citizens to design their own future with the foods they eat, systems that grow algae, and landscapes and urbanscapes they dream of living in.

Competition objectives are to elevate the awareness of algae in our lives, similar to objectives of the International Bamboo Building Design Competition ( held four years ago. Although fast growing bamboo has been widely used as a building material by millions of people in tropical areas of the world, it was being associated with low status structural buildings such as poor people’s shacks or scaffolding for tall buildings. Bamboo Competition invited global architects, engineers, builders and students to design beautiful, prestigious and ecological buildings from bamboo, ranging from single dwellings to complex multi-story urban centers. Ensuing publicity, books and exhibitions continued to raise global awareness of bamboo as a premier structural building material.

Algae are now becoming part of the global conversation. If algae are 20 times more productive than terrestrial crops, more efficiently using land, water and energy to produce biomass for food and fuel, then we do want our global citizens to embrace the many products that come from algae. Each gram of algae we consume, replaces a gram of another material that may use 20 times more of some resources.

People are growing from 7 billion today to 9 billion by 2050. We are unsustainably consuming our planet’s resources, facing global instability from climate change, scarcity and resource wars. If every person consumes just 3 grams of algae per day, not such a big dietary change, replacing 3 grams of another resource-gobbling product, magnified by 7 billion people, leveraged with 20:1 productivity, that offers real improvement of global sustainability. To accomplish this, algae need to become more attractive and even more sexy.

What will our future with algae look like and how will it work?

The 2011 International Algae Competition posed this question as a global challenge to design visionary algae food and energy systems of the future. The competition encouraged anyone anywhere in the world to apply their creativity to design our future landscapes, growing systems and new foods. Over a nine-month period, 170 participants responded, representing 40 countries and submitting some amazing designs, projects and food ideas.

The 2011 International Algae Competition

The competition is an open source collaboratory

Sufficient knowledge about algae production exists today to support successful cultivation. Unfortunately, much of the best knowledge rests with a few elite scientists and entrepreneurs who sequester their research findings due to intellectual property limitations.

The algae industry today is fractured as each company acts to protect intellectual property behind a wall of secrecy. Scientists are prevented by non-disclosure agreements to collaborate with others or share production breakthroughs and real costs of productivity metrics. This secrecy leads to mistakes in algae production that are repeated multiple times. Companies do not readily share mistakes for fear the next round of funding will dissolve. This degree of secrecy concentrates rather than expands knowledge, and slows innovation.

Algae Competition objectives are to create an open source collaboratory that expands and shares a vision for algae in our future with design ideas for algae production landscapes, sustainable and affordable algae production systems for medicines, food, feed, energy, nutrients, water remediation, carbon capture and new algae foods. As an open source competition, entries are showcased online.

1. Algae Food Development and Recipes

What will be the next algae foods and recipes and future uses of algae as food and feed ingredients that will transform our health?
Algae Competition invited algae enthusiasts, chefs, cooks, food developers, algae eaters, students and teams to create menus, new foods and food products incorporating algae as a featured ingredient.

Algae Food Development and Recipes

Food development and recipe categories ranged from main course, dessert, ice cream, cereal, grains, nutrition drink, shakes, appetizer, chips, snacks, bread, pasta, noodles, nutrition, energy bar, soup or stew, dips, condiments, raw food, food supplements, salad and fresh algae.

Featured entries for Algae Food Development and recipes and their stories:

  • Marine algae h’ors d’oeurves from Australia
  • Spirulina candies distributed to undernourished children in India
  • Food recipes with chlorella, spirulina and marine algae from a class in the USA
  • Fresh spirulina aquamole dips and spreads from France
  • Algae café with marine algae and sea vegetable meal recipes from Canada
  • Instant soup in an alginate sphere with marine algae from France
  • Spirulina tofu from Singapore
  • Naturopathic condiment grown and developed in France

2. Algae Production Systems (APS)

What are the best designs, engineering and systems to work effectively and economically on a community scale or distributed model? Algae Competition invited algae enthusiasts, engineers, systems designers, builders, students and teams to develop working models and designs for algae production systems and microfarms.

Algae Production Systems

Algae Production System (APS) categories ranged from open raceway ponds, open and closed hybrid, closed system tubes, bags, tanks, plates, personal micro farms, community size farms, village scale farms, large commercial farms and lake farms.

Featured entries for Algae Production Systems and their stories:

  • Lake harvesting systems
  • Commercial algae farms
  • Small-scale village and microfarm systems
  • Integrated algae production systems
  • Cybernetic and versatile photo bioreactors
  • Novel photo bioreactor designs

3. Algae Landscape and Architecture Design

How will algae production be designed into future landscapes, buildings and communities? What will they look like and how will they work? Algae Competition invited algae enthusiasts, architects, designers, visionaries, builders, students and teams to design integrated algae production into future landscapes, farms, coastlines, cities, buildings and eco-communities.

Algae Landscape and Architecture Design

Algae Landscape Design categories ranged from urban landscapes, integrated commercial farms, community micro farms, appropriate village farms, vertical farms, green walls, suburban landscapes, rooftop systems, parks and gardens, agricultural landscapes, greenhouse systems, new model communities, sea and ocean landscapes.

Emerging Themes, Schemes and Dreams in Landscape Designs:

  • Regenerating the natural environment and restoring polluted landscapes
  • Creating urban master plans and green water parks with algae production
  • Innovating the traditional seaweed and marine algae industry
  • Floating algae biofuel production farms along coastlines
  • Capturing and reusing CO2 emissions in transport networks
  • Enhancing quality of life and supporting communities in the developing world
  • Designing living buildings and retrofitting buildings with photosynthetic membranes
  • Fueling algae-based urban economies and eco-communities
  • Showcasing algae parks for entertainment, education and recreation

Next Step: International Algae Exhibitions
Eat • Grow • Dream Algae, the Foundation of life

After the Algae Competition, the award winning and best landscape designs, algae production systems and food entries will tour to International Exhibitions.

Algae, the Foundation of life

Venues will offer a multi-media and multi-sensory experience:

  1. Algae landscape and architecture designs of the future on wall murals and video monitors
  2. Algae production micro ponds and bioreactors on the floor and grounds
  3. Algae food and beverages for delicious taste sensations for openings and scheduled events

How will algae change the world and improve our lives?

What are some of the amazing visions of our algae future? This series of 6 articles will showcase some of the most impressive competition entries.

  1. Future of Algae from the International Algae Competition
  2. Eat: New Algae Foods and Recipes
  3. Grow: Algae Production Systems
  4. Dream: Algae Landscape and Architecture Designs (part 1)
  5. Dream: Algae Landscape and Architecture Designs (part 2)
  6. International Algae Exhibitions