"The ocean will be our solution": why algae could be the new oil and a Kiel researcher wants to win Elon Musk’s $100 million prize
In the fight against climate change, researchers are looking for ways to recapture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Mar Fernandez-Mendez, a marine biologist from Kiel, believes that algae in particular are underestimated: they can grow on huge areas with relatively little effort and store large amounts of CO2 in the process.
She wants to win Elon Musk’s CarbonX Prize with her project. The billionaire has offered $100 million for projects that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
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The earth has a problem: too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause global warming. Climate change not only heats water and land more, but also thaws icebergs, glaciers and permafrost, leading to rising sea levels and the release of even more greenhouse gases. The consequences for humans and wildlife will be devastating if we don’t stop – or even reverse – this trend.
But the salvation of the world could be right before our eyes. At least there are some hopeful approaches that promise climate protection and a sustainable circular economy at the same time. Projects with so-called blue carbon, better known as blue carbon, sound particularly promising. The term refers to the carbon sequestered in the oceans by marine organisms such as mangrove trees or seagrass beds.
Seagrass, for example, stores a lot of carbon dioxide in the sediment in the long term. After dying, the plant can be used as a natural and flame-retardant insulating material, as has been the custom in the North Sea for centuries. But there is one drawback. "Seaweed is a very sensitive marine plant," says Mar Fernandez-Mendez, a marine biologist at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, in an interview with Business Insider. Too much excrement and fertilizers from agriculture, animal husbandry and aquaculture end up in the sea, which the sea grass can not tolerate. marine plants are dying off rapidly in masses all over the world.
Algae can store large amounts of CO2
Reforestation of seagrass beds on a large scale is difficult because of this, he says, even though their protection is important nonetheless. Because the plants provide food and habitat for various marine life. They also keep the water clear and the sediment on the coast, preventing coastal erosion.
However, other blue-carbon organisms such as macroalgae, i.e. large algae also known as seaweed, have the potential to sequester significantly more CO2 worldwide. "Macroalgae that can grow floating will be the hit of the future for storing carbon," says the marine biologist. These include the brown algae sargassum or kelp. "The macroalgae Sargassum fluitans or natans for example can grow floating everywhere on the oceans with little nutrients."
Macroalgae need neither fertilizer nor fresh water to thrive. They could therefore be grown with little effort in huge areas. "We always think of trees as the gold standard for CO2 storage. It is said: If we want to save the world, we must plant as many trees as possible. Unfortunately that is not true", says the scientist. A normal tree does not store a larger amount of carbon dioxide until it is older, and only a portion of it is stored in the soil. The rest can be released back into the atmosphere.
"The sea will be our solution"
What’s more, trees don’t grow everywhere. Few of them are found in the mountains or on steppes and deserts. In the other regions, they always have to compete with settlements and agricultural land. In Germany alone, 56 hectares of land fall victim to land grabbing every year. Forests and meadows have to make way for new houses, factories and roads. In the tropics, rainforests are being cleared to make way for farming and livestock. It’s also getting harder and harder to reforest in the face of climate change. In the future, trees in Germany will not only have to withstand more heat and drought than in the past, but will also have to continue to withstand frost in winter.
The sea, on the other hand, has one big advantage: it’s huge. The oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface and, because of their depth, make up 99 percent of our blue planet’s habitat. But despite its size, the potential of the sea is often overlooked, Fernandez-Mendez believes: "Until now, we have always exploited the sea and used it as a dumping ground. But I think, now comes a turn. The sea will be our solution. We have to ask ourselves: how can we use these huge resources we have out there wisely and sustainably?"
Because algae can also pose a danger. If they grow too close to the surface, they prevent light from entering the water. This is fatal for the plants and animals living there. Also in the Caribbean Sargassum, washed up en masse on the beaches as a nuisance. "If too many nutrients get into the water, they can cause a major algae bloom and threaten valuable coastal ecosystems. That’s why we need to learn how to grow and control macroalgae sustainably," says marine biologist. Intensive research is currently being carried out in Asia on this so-called "marine permaculture". "In Europe, we have long underestimated how valuable macroalgae can be," says Fernandez-Mendez.
An algae project aims to win Elon Musk’s CarbonX Prize
The idea: The Sargassum or other macroalgae should not grow on the coast, but in certain zones on the open sea. The algae could then be gathered, compressed and then sunk into the deep sea – along with the carbon stored in it. This requires large ships and fixed platforms, but the oil industry and large-scale fisheries are familiar with offshore infrastructure. "The best engineers and skilled workers in the offshore oil industry know how to do this. If you could get those minds from the oil companies and other maritime industries, we’ll definitely do it," the marine biologist is convinced.
A consortium she’s part of wants to win Elon Musk’s CarbonX Prize. The billionaire and head of Tesla and SpaceX has offered $100 million for projects that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Fernandez-Mendez believes that pioneers like Musk are important for the upheaval. She would like to see a new beginning, comparable to the Apollo mission 60 years ago. "The U.S. set out in the early 1960s that it wanted to go to the moon by the end of the decade. And then they put a lot of money and energy into the space program," says Fernandez-Mendez. "This is what we need now for the oceans. We have enough smart people on this earth with different expertise."This is a revolution that needs everyone – not just marine biologists.
But algae are also truly multi-talented: cows fed with them emit 82 percent less methane. They are also suitable as food for humans and are already firmly established in Asian cuisine. "The world’s population keeps growing, and everyone wants to eat. That’s why people are looking for new sources of protein," she says. Since 2003, the United Nations has therefore been trying to make insects palatable to people instead of beef or pork in the fight against hunger and climate change. But because of Western eating habits, that still takes some overcoming. "I think people have less of a problem eating algae than insects," says Fernandez-Mendez.
Will algae become the new petroleum?
Algae could also be used to produce fertilizer, biofuels, biogas and bioplastics. "You can do an incredible amount with it. There’s a huge new market that’s developing," says the marine biologist enthusiastically. Currently, many new companies are being created in this field, she says.
Will algae become the new oil? "I think they do," she says, laughing. "The oil industry has produced various products while emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. And now, with the algae industry, we could create new products that can replace them, sequestering CO2 that has been emitted over the past decades."
There is even hope that even the problem of plastic waste in the ocean can be solved to some extent. "Sargassum Accumulates in the same way larger pieces of plastic do in the ocean. It’s possible that the plastic, along with the Sargassum sunk. But we don’t know yet whether it will work," the scientist says. He says it’s important to find ways to be more sustainable without harming the oceans in the process. "We don’t have all the answers yet. But I think it’s important to have great visions."