Algae is the New Everything

Pond Scum! Woo!
So, I never knew algae was so cool!

In fact, I never knew it as anything but pond scum.

But that is only one type of algae, and the right types can do some crazy things.

There is a big rush right now to convert algae into biofuel. Algae is fabulous for this because it  eats carbon dioxide and farts oxygen, so it can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. (Which I am ALL FOR on this deathly hot day.) Okay, yes, the grass in your lawn (and ALL plants) do this. But there's a lot more algae in the world than there is grass. (Algae lives in some crazy places.) And it takes light and makes it into food better than other plants.  We can even genetically alter then to make them produce exactly the fuels we want. If we can use it to fuel our crazy, wasteful, material-girl lives, maybe it will be less harmful than burning coal, fighting over oil, or building nuclear plants that could get hit by tsunamis and leak radiation everywhere.

E85 is 85% corn ethanol and 15% gasoline.

Okay, so I'm sure you've seen the perky little graphics at gas stations that provide ethanol, with an appetizing ear of corn. And indeed, you can make biofuel with corn. But corn is environmentally expensive. It requires farmland, first off, and lots of it. It requires oodles of fresh water, sunlight, and care. If the weather is bad, the yeild is bad. And if you do succeed in growing a good crop, using it to create fuel instead of food drives up food costs, which directly affects families on a daily basis. Also, since it must be grown far from where people are, the transportation costs are huge.

Algae can be grown just about anywhere, it grows fast, it's easy to manipulate, and it doesn't cut into our food sources. It's a better candidate for creating biofuel than corn is. (For much, much, more go here.)  I, for one, am glad my corn on the cob is boiled, buttered, and a part of my summer picnic rather than used to fuel my car.

But that's not all algae can do. It could help support space travel.

It's the same old thing with the fish. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats forever. We'll take the analogy one step closer to space travel: Sea travel. Bring a carton of eggs and you can have scrambled eggs for breakfast for a few days. Bring a coop of chickens...

I think you get the idea. Algae is at the bottom of the food chain. It is THE bottom. And not just the food chain either. Back at the beginning of the world, when life on Earth was in version 1.1, organisms like algae helped create the atmosphere and make it ready for version awesome.cool, aka Humans.

So let's take a leap here. If we were to take a space ship to Mars, it would take about 3 months to get there. How much food do you eat in three months? How much water do you drink? How much air do you breathe? Cause you know, the air you breathe out doesn't have as much oxygen as the air you breathe in.  And--lets not be delicate here--how many pounds of poop do you flush in three months? (Everyone Poops, if you weren't aware....) 

How on Earth (or off of it) are you going to feed yourself, and what are you going to do with the waste? (FYI, I would not ask a certain Howard Wolowitz...) And if every breath depletes the amount of breathable oxygen in the ship, what are you going to breathe?! Problems indeed. Well, algae can help with the oxygen part of it.

Dr. Leslie Prufert-Bebout, aside from having a cool last name, is working on space-age algae: “…for
Dr. Leslie and her algae.
long-term, extended space habitation life support, utilization of the (Microbial) ecosystem-scale recycling methods that support human life on Earth will provide cheap, clean, and virtually waste-free primary support systems.” (via Algae Industry Magazine) So, the basic idea is that to make space livable for humans, whether on a space ship or in a settlement, we use some of the same systems that work here on Earth to keep us alive.

But replicating these systems is next to impossible. In fact, people have been researching this for years, and though most agree that it's a possibility, and probably a desirable thing to use biological systems to keep us alive in space, it's kind of been put on the back burner. The thing is, life is weird. Biology is weird. And complex. You are a biological creature. A computer is not. If I give you a worksheet with 100 simple math problems to do every day for a year, and give the computer the same thing, guess which on is going to make a mistake? Guess which one will forget to do them one day? Or get sick of it and refuse?

Well, the computer is not going to feel anything at all about being asked to do math problems every day for a year. It won't forget. And it probably won't make a mistake. We can't rule out mechanical failure, obviously, but I bet the computer would come out the more reliable. For one thing, almost any mechanical problem can be traced to a source and repaired. Biology is much less concrete.

So you can see how relying on biological systems to keep you alive in space might be kind of nerve wracking for the average space traveler.

But! It beats having to bring bulky machines that can only aspire to the efficiency of algae when it comes to disposing of carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.

Of course much of this cool use of algae in space is in the future. Research takes time and money.

Lots, and lots of money. Fortunately, people like Dr. Prufert-Bebout, whose team ALEX, (Algae for Exploration) is funded by NASA. It's good to see that even if the space shuttles will be grounded for good after this summer, that NASA itself isn't shutting down--there's still a ton of research to be done, and people who want nothing more than to carry it out.

As long as people keep asking questions, keep being curious, I don't have any fear that science won't get done. Especially since seemingly mundane or unpopular things like algae can be so useful and fascinating!

For everything you ever wanted to know about algae (and for the source of most of my research for this blog) check out Algae Industry Magazine.

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