[Reading level: C1 – Advanced]
As fires rage in the Amazon, people still latch onto the phrase that the Amazon is the “lungs of the earth.” President Emmanuel Macron of France warned that “our house is burning.” Celebrities from Leonardo DiCaprio to Vanessa Hudgens raised funds to support the Amazon, and the hashtag #PrayforAmazonia went viral.
Our hearts collectively burst for the Amazon for two reasons: One was for the environmental tragedy of watching an icon location burn, and the other for the fact that this 6 to 8 million square kilometers of forest plays a vital role in removing world-heating carbon dioxide out of the air. The longer the fires burn, the less natural air filtration the Earth will have.
But while the Amazon plays a vital role in global carbon absorption (and we should continue to try and save it), between 1994 and 2007, our oceans absorbed 34 gigatons of the world’s carbon through algae, vegetation, and coral. In other words, the trees might not save us—but the oceans could.
Solutions in the natural world will help right the warming wrongs of the human-made world. According to a new analysis by ecologist Thomas Crowther and colleagues at ETH Zurich, a Swiss university, there is enough room in the world’s existing parks, forests, and abandoned land to plant 1.2 trillion additional trees. These forests would have the CO2 storage capacity to cancel out a decade of carbon-dioxide emissions.
But other scientists aren’t as hopeful. They believe it could take hundreds of years before these new plants could scale back carbon-dioxide levels to the level the study suggests. The optimal time to plant trees to address our current climate crisis was decades ago.
Other challenges with forestation as a climate-change solution include the displacement of land used for farming, scientific and technological difficulties in measurement and monitoring, and limited public funding for carbon-beneficial land management, according to a World Research Institute (WRI) working paper. Planting as many trees as possible as quickly as possible could reduce nine gigatons of carbon a year—but it would also increase food prices by 80% by 2050.
Trees alone will therefore not save us from the current crisis. We must look to our oceans for solutions that are more effective and scalable. Say hello to algae sequestration.
Algae can be utilized in a number of ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Other than it being the most efficient solution for storing carbon dioxide, it can be easily used in a variety of other sustainable and commercial products or materials, from tennis shoes to steel alternatives to veggie burgers.
Algae as carbon sequestration
Algae, when used in conjunction with AI-powered bioreactors, is up to 400 times more efficient than a tree at removing CO2 from the atmosphere. That means that while we are learning to reduce carbon emissions and augment our consumption patterns, we can start to make big reductions in atmospheric carbon. When wielded correctly, it could make a city carbon negative without changing current production or consumption patterns of the city.
Trees and algae sequester carbon dioxide naturally. Trees “consume” it as part of their photosynthesis process by “absorbing” carbon into their trunks and roots and releasing oxygen back into the air. Algae replicates the same process but “absorbs” the carbon in the form of more algae. Algae can consume more carbon dioxide than trees because it can cover more surface area, grow faster, and be more easily controlled by bioreactors, given its relative size. Bioreactors can contain large amounts of algae and optimize for its growth (and related sequestration) cycle in a way that is easier than trees and takes the overgrowth of algae, dehydrates it, and ultimately puts it to use as fuel or biomass.
Algae as food
Rebecca White is one of the rising aglaepreneurs in the space. She is a research scientist at iWi, a nutrition company that runs algae farms in Texas and New Mexico. Their mission is to accelerate algae’s potential as a solution to the food security of our planet. Population projections show that we will need a 70% increase in food supply by 2050 to feed the planet, and a recent United Nations report warns of a looming food crisis.
iWi’s two farms host 48 ponds, each about the size of a football field. They harvest the algae and turn it into algae oil, which is sold as supplements. They are working on turning the remaining proteins and carbohydrates into protein products with a commercially viable taste profile.
The Novotel Hotel in Bangkok is operating an urban algae farm on its roof in partnership with algae startup EnerGaia, a producer of spirulina-based food and supplements. Founder and CEO Saumil Shah started EnerGaia after first working for GE on an algae-based biofuel project in Thailand. He left GE to start a company using algae as fish food when he saw more immediate commercialization opportunities. He then moved to Bangkok and shifted to human food after his fish-food facility was destroyed in the Thailand 2011 flood.
The company raised a Series A funding of $3.65 million in 2019, fueling his vision to transform the spirulina market into a sustainable, accessible, and profitable solution to future resource scarcity caused by the world’s reliance on water- and land-intensive food production. He is banking on spirulina becoming a staple food item that moves out of the health-food market and into the grocery store.
Algae as material
Dutch designers Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros use algae to create polymers that can be used in 3D printing as a replacement for plastic. “In principle, we can make anything from this local algae polymer: from shampoo bottles to tableware or rubbish bins,” says the firm’s project coordinator Johanna Weggelaar. “Our goal is to ultimately turn an industrial manufacturing process—a source of pollution that contributes to global warming—into a way to subtract CO2 from the atmosphere. Using algae as a raw material would turn any mode of production into a way to help the environment.”
Many other companies are already commercializing the output of algae fibers. One of the leading innovators is Bloom, a company that makes a foam from algae. This material is then used for shoes and surfboards, whose soles are typically made from petroleum. Some of their clients using the algae foam for shoes include Merrill, Adidas, and H&M. During the harvesting of the algae, the Bloom technology also cleans the water and puts it back into the freshwater ecosystem, resulting in 225 bottles of filtered water returned to the environment, and 21 balloons of CO2 kept from entering the atmosphere.
Algae as fuel
Algae can also be used to produce biofuels, which are fuels derived directly from living matter. This means it can provide a more sustainable alternative to carbon-producing fossil fuels, like petroleum. In fact, algae has been known to produce as much as 5,000 biofuel gallons from a single acre in one year.
The US Government first explored algae as a petroleum alternative during the energy crisis in the 1970s. It abandoned the project in the 1990s because they were unable to make it competitive with the pricing of petroleum. However, with the rising costs of oil and an imperative to find clean-energy solutions, both oil companies such as Exxon and venture capitalists are pouring money into solving the algae-as-fuel equation.
While progress is being made, the industry recognizes it’s a long journey to profitability. Algae oil extraction is a costly process and difficult to scale. The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in Berkeley projected that development of cost-competitive algae biofuel production will require long-term research, development, and demonstration. Why not start now?
The challenges with algae
Scaling algae for biofuel production is not without its challenges. For one, algae growth is rapid and has been historically hard to manage and optimize. This can be addressed with new technology, like machine learning and AI, that helps to manage the growth process in order to ensure that growth happens through a managed and predictable cadence. Another limiting factor is the cost of implementation and the difficult road to profitability for many of these technologies. It’s been historically hard to convince people to pay more for something they can pay less for, and companies like Exxon and Shell have experienced this head-on with their stunt-filled algae-fuel concepts.
However, the time to be cheap is over. We need to consider alternative options that are planet-effective, not just cost-effective. We need more investible capital in longterm solutions that help to solve big problems. The current five-year investment cycle for most VC-backed companies is too short for addressing major moonshot problems like climate change. To make these solutions work, we need investment options that allow for more gradual profit return and longer-term planning, thinking, and execution.
rage /reɪdʒ/ [C2] (v): hoành hành
latch onto sth /lætʃ/ (v): bám chặt lấy cái gì
go viral /ˈvaɪ.rəl/ (v): lan truyền mạnh mẽ (trên internet)
collectively /kəˈlek.tɪv.li/ (adv): cùng nhau
tragedy /ˈtrædʒ.ə.di/ [B2] (n): thảm kịch
play a vital role in sth (v): đóng vai trò quan trọng trong việc gì
filtration /fɪlˈtreɪ.ʃən/ (n): lọc
absorption /əbˈzɔːp.ʃən/ (n): sự hấp thụ
ecologist /iˈkɒl.ə.dʒɪst/ (n): nhà sinh thái học
abandoned land /əˈbæn.dənd lænd/ (n): đất bỏ hoang
storage capacity /ˈstɔː.rɪdʒ kəˈpæs.ə.ti/ (n): khả năng dự trữ
cancel out /ˈkæn.səl aʊt/: triệt tiêu, xóa bỏ.
scale back (phrasal verb): giảm quy mô
optimal /ˈɒp.tɪ.məl/ (adj): tối ưu
crisis /ˈkraɪ.sɪs/ [B2]: cuộc khủng hoảng
forestation /fɒr.ɪˈsteɪ.ʃən/ (n): sự trồng cây gây rừng
look to (phrasal verb): mong đợi, hy vọng
scalable /ˈskeɪ.lə.bəl/ (adj): có triển vọng phát triển
sequestration /siː.kwesˈtreɪ.ʃən/ (n): sự hấp thụ
in conjunction with (pre): kết hợp với
bioreactor /baɪ.əʊ riˈæk.tər/ (n): lò phản ứng sinh học
augment /ɔːɡˈment/ (v): tăng cường
wield /wild/ (v): sử dụng (quyền hành, ảnh hưởng)
photosynthesis /ˌfəʊ.təʊˈsɪn.θə.sɪs/ (n): quang hợp
replicate /ˈrep.lɪ.keɪt/ (v): sao chép, tái tạo
dehydrate /ˌdiː.haɪˈdreɪt/ (v): khử nước
biomass /ˈbaɪ.əʊˌmæs/ (n): sinh khối
accelerate /əkˈsel.ə.reɪt/ [c2] (v): tăng cường
projection /prəˈdʒek.ʃən/ [c1] (n): sự dự đoán
looming /ˈluː.mɪŋ/ (adj): đang rình rập
host /həʊst/ (v): có, chứa
spirulina-based (adj): có nguồn gốc từ tảo xoắn
biofuel /ˈbaɪ.əʊˌfjuː.əl/ (n): nhiên liệu sinh học
commercialization /kəˌmɜː.ʃəl.aɪˈzeɪ.ʃən/ (n): thương nghiệp hóa
fuel /ˈfjuːəl/ (v): thúc đẩy
bank on (phrasal verb): trông mong, hy vọng
staple food /ˈsteɪ.pəl fuːd/ (n): mặt hàng chủ lực
coordinator /kəʊˈɔː.dɪ.neɪ.tər/ (n): điều phối viên
subtract /səbˈtrækt/ (v): loại bỏ
foam /fəʊm/ (n): xốp
freshwater ecosystem (n): hệ sinh thái nước sạch
living matter (n): vật chất sống
acre /ˈeɪ.kər/ [C2] (n): mẫu anh (khoảng 0,4 hecta)
imperative /ɪmˈper.ə.tɪv/ (n): sự cấp bách
venture capitalist /ˈven.tʃər ˈkæp.ɪ.təl.ɪst/ (n): nhà tư bản liều lĩnh
extraction /ɪkˈstræk.ʃən/ (n): sự khai thác
machine learning (n): máy học (một nhánh con của ai)
head-on (adv/adj): trực tiếp, trực diện
moonshot /ˈmuːn.ʃɒt/ (n): khó nhằn, gần như không thể đạt được
execution /ˌek.sɪˈkjuː.ʃən/ (n) sự thực hiện
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