Chemists to Celebrate Earth Week With Algae

April 10, 2023
Nature’s chemical factories show promise for various bio-based industry applications.

Algae is a versatile organism that could one day serve as a sustainable raw material for plastics, biofuels and other chemical-related production processes.

The American Chemical Society is recognizing the role that algae plays in the environment with "The Curious Chemistry of Amazing Algae,"  the theme of  this year’s Chemists Celebrate Earth Week.

“Algae have evolved over billions of years to produce and store energy, and they do this more efficiently than any other known natural or engineered process,” says Robin Polk, program manager, office of science outreach for ACS. “As a result, more than half of the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from algae.”

ACS’ annual weeklong event will take place April 16-22.  

As Polk explains, algae use chemical reactions to function. They produce oxygen via photosynthesis, which involves a series of chemical reactions that convert one substance to another. Scientists and chemical producers are exploring potential applications for algae because they are fast-growing and highly efficient bio factories. Microalgae are of particular interest because of their high oil content, which can be 20% to 80% of their dry weight biomass.

Algae Investments on the Rise

Some scientists are looking at ways to harvest toxic algae blooms – the result of agricultural pollution – to make materials for a wide range of products, including detergents, packaging, and plastics.

On March 20, bioventure organization Chitose Group said it had completed the construction of a 12-acre microalgae production facility in Sarawak, Malaysia, as part of its MATSURI (Microalgae Towards Sustainable and Resilient Industry) project. Chitose Group comprises several chemical companies, including Eneos Holdings Inc., Mitsui Chemicals and Mitsubishi Chemical Co. 

Chitose aims to achieve zero carbon emissions through photoautotrophic microalgae production. By 2030, Chitose plans to expand the production to nearly 5,000 acres and produce 140,000 dry tons of microalgal dry biomass per year. 

Honda Motor Co., a Chitose Group partner, has been researching algae as a potential renewable resource for various applications, including biofuels for aircraft. The project, called Dreamo, involves a cultivation process that maximizes the use of sunlight, which reduces costs associated with traditional algae production practices, according to the company.

The company is cultivating indoors in a sterile environment with controlled temperatures versus the unpredictable outdoor conditions. It also involves a heterotrophic method based on organic carbon sources, such as sugar, rather than energy and carbon sources.

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