What is Algae?

Can you name something that contains algae that you use or eat regularly? Would you ever fill up your car’s tank with algae fuel? Do you think you could make a career working with algae? People do.

Algae are complex living organisms that have been around for at least 3 billion years. They have a long, interesting history because of their place in our evolution.

All land plants we consume originate from algae. New species of algae are discovered every year. They are incredibly important because they are the primary plant in both salt and fresh water aquatic environments. The study of algae is called phycology, which is a subdiscipline of botany.

Algae are typically found in aquatic environments, but they can be found anywhere. Algae travel as spores and can be found in water, air, mixed with dust, and even inside you. This makes it hard to map where algae lives. Algae have been found in natural hot springs, on ducks feet, on the belly of a whale, on polar bears in zoos, as scum on pond, and on snow and ice in the middle of the mountains. Algae can be microscopic spores in places like Antarctica or they can grow to 65 meters as kelp in an underwater sea forest.

Algae are typically associated with smelly swamps and scummy ponds. They are colored bright red, brown, or green. The colors come from their photosynthetic pigments. Photosynthesis is the ability for a plant to produce energy and give off oxygen. Algae are the primary producer of oxygen on Earth. Without algae we couldn’t survive.

Algae have been dubbed “the world’s most important plants.” Lots of research is devoted to the study of phycology – a word that is often confused with psychology, which is completely different. Large research universities, massive corporations, and even everyday folks benefit from algae. It has incredible environmental and financial potential.

Algae are a main ingredient in toothpaste. It is also found in ice cream. They are commonly used as food ingredients, fertilizers, thickeners, dyes, pharmaceuticals, fuels, pollution controls, nutritional supplements, sewage treatments, and animal feed. Algae are often found in foods like sushi and in certain salads.

Maybe the most exciting thing about algae is algaculture. Algaculture is the farming of algae – a plant that grows very fast and is totally environmentally friendly. Algae farmers spend their time farming and harvesting microalgaes to be used for health supplements or bio diesel fuel. This new algae application is a big deal and has some serious potential. Algae have even been featured on Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs.

Algae can be used as algae pellets or algae coal to heat homes and drive cars. See: Oilgae. It is estimated that an algae farm the size of Maryland could someday fuel the entire United States!
Right now, algae farming produces a sustainable source of fuel. In the future, it is estimated that 1 acre of fuel could create 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year. Some major airplane manufacturers research algae in the hopes that they can develop a jet that only uses algae fuel.

Algae research is an exciting field to be involved in. Algae researchers, or phycologists, go to school to obtain degrees in botany or phycology. Most of the research is conducted at the graduate or doctoral level. Other algae careers include algae farmers who either work for themselves or for biofuel companies. With new species constantly being discovered and the potential for algae as a source of biofuel, the opportunities are only just beginning.

Imagine making a career off of algae. Phycologists do it. So do algae farmers. Algae has a lot of potential to make a lot of people very rich. Only time will tell what else the world’s most important plant can do.

Algae Industry Magazine
Algal Biomass Organization
International Phycological Society
Phycological Society of America

Sign up for our newsletter!