Algae: One man's pond scum

Algae: One man's pond scum

If you know anything about oils for food, supplements, or even the type that fuels your car, then you know the science behind the energy-boosting compounds is remarkably similar. Perhaps there is no better illustration than with algae oil. The possibilities are limitless, so much so that Fi predicts this could be the next wonder substance for skincare, inflammation reduction, weight loss and clean energy. Yes, the very same substance for a healthy vegetarian stir fry could also fuel your car, a plane and even the company where you work. The remaining challenge is scalability and price. The specific methods vary, but the basics are the same.

algae1. Main strain
Algae naturally produce oil as a way to store energy. The trick is figuring out which strains produce the desired outcome for foods, supplements, cosmetics or biofuels production. Through a two-step process called Directed Evolution, scientists determine which organism or gene (from a mutated population) thrives and outperforms the original strain. As an example, Solazyme uses robots to identify the functionality of tens of thousands of specific mutated micro-organisms within a few hours.

2. Breeding grounds
Slurry of water, nutrients and a few select algae come together, and rapid reproduction gets underway. Some companies use photosynthesis, others use dark fermentation to convert sugar into lipids. The algal cells fill with as much as 60 per cent of its weight in oil.

3. Extracting the oil
Extraction methods vary from pressing methods similar to olive-oil production, while other companies employ compressed carbon dioxide, solvents or even sonic waves. From here, the oil can be further refined for commercial food and cosmetic uses or fuel. Also, the remaining cells produce a biomass that can be used as a fat replacer in human food production or for animal feed.

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