When most people hear the term “algae”, they imagine strands of seaweed washing up along the coast or green and brown coloured lakes as a result of algal blooms. However, algae are a very diverse group of organisms that perform photosynthesis and that range in size from a single cell several micrometers across (called microalgae) to multicellular seaweeds that can reach from millimeters up to 70 meters in length (called macroalgae). While most people don’t know much about these curious organisms, they are playing an increasingly important role in our lives.
As algae can grow very fast, they are able to sequester a lot of CO2 from the ocean and atmosphere and provide vital oxygen in return. Macroalgae like kelp can form dense underwater forests which protect our coastline from erosion. Furthermore, they provide important habitats and a vital food source to many marine species, including fish, crabs, urchins and sea turtles. For centuries, algae have also been part of the human diet in East and South-East Asia and are becoming increasingly popular in Europe and around the world. New applications are also emerging and algae are now being used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, animal feed, biomaterials and energy production (biofuel).
To meet the demand for algal biomass, algae are increasingly being harvested and cultivated with the algae biomass production reaching 33 million tonnes (wet weight) in 2016. Microalgae are grown in open ponds or in closed systems like fermenters or photobioreactors while macroalgae are being harvested from the wild or grown in aquaculture farms. Although the EU share of global algae production is small (0.57 % in 2016), it is an important emerging sector in the European Blue (Bio)Economy which has generated an estimated turnover of over €350 million in 2018. In 2019, there were 126 algae-producing companies in the EU with 57 % of the companies produced macroalgae and 43% microalgae. Find out where these algae production facilities are located and what production techniques are being used with our Map of the week.