What is algae?

All algae grow in water. They come in many shapes and sizes and there are many different species, such as the seaweed we often see washed up on beaches—these are a large and complex “macroalgae”. But there are also microscopic and simple, single-cell species called “microalgae”. These grow in rivers, dams, lakes, waterways and oceans. Through photosynthesis, they generate half of the oxygen we breathe.”

When microalgae grow and group together, the water they live in becomes brilliant shades of green, red and gold. In the ocean, they can even cause the waters to glow.

We wouldn’t have the air we breathe today if it weren’t for the algae that first appeared on Earth about 2.5 billion years ago. The algae ancestors produced oxygen and created Earth’s atmosphere. Today, there are up to 1 million species of algae. They live in most bodies of water, from icy Antarctica, to mountain top lakes, to tropical rain forests.

Pink microalgae
Close up of pink microalgae Image: Martina Doblin
© Martina Doblin

Microalgae research

The team at the UTS Climate Change Cluster (C3) unlock, harness and apply the power of tiny powerhouses, called microalgae, to offset carbon dioxide. They also research the impacts of climate change on people, ecosystems and industries - and tackle these with innovative solutions.

Sustainable materials of the future

Algae is useful and valuable across many industries because it is high in lipids and proteins. It can be used in many products that we currently make with fossil-fuel petrochemicals; from fuel and fertiliser to plastics. Algae can also be easily grown in bodies of water, such as lakes and dams, before being harvested and processed.

Microalgae can also substitute ingredients in nutraceuticals, vitamins, dietary supplements and for use in sustainability projects.

Researchers experimenting with microalgae
Researchers at UTS experimenting with microalgae. Image: Anna Zhu
© Anna Zhu

Many big companies have become, or plan to become, carbon-neutral by adopting more sustainable practices and processes. If you’re curious, look out for eco-friendly products when you’re shopping and search for a company’s environmental commitment on their website.

Banks, superannuation and energy providers are adopting green practices to keep their customers and entice new ones. See how your bank, superannuation or investments stack up and find out how green is your electricity is.

How do you know which businesses are actively reducing their own carbon footprint? Usually, they’ll tell you! Now, as the world calls for more action on climate change, businesses are aware that sustainable business is, well, sustainable. Investing in the environment is investing in their own future too.

Look out for cafes and restaurants serving local, seasonal produce, that encourage their customers to use their own refillable cups, that are powered with renewable energy, recycle their packaging and sort and compost food scraps.

There’s no doubt plastic has its benefits. It’s durable, protective, lightweight and cheap. We use it everywhere. But, as waste, it destroys environments. It’s made from fossil fuels and can be harmful to animals, including humans. By 2050, the plastic waste in the oceans will outweigh all the fish.

But, there are alternatives. Single-use plastics can be replaced with reusable or refillable jars, cups and other containers. Check out some alternatives.

Also look out for local cafés or restaurants offering bioplastic packaging. From coffee cups to straws, cutlery, bags, take away containers and napkins - these are all products that can be made from algae and/or plants. Not fossil fuels.