Algae is hot right now, and not just because global warming is exacerbating massive algae blooms (you'll understand later). If you've been paying attention to recent design trends, you've likely become aware of the growingpopularityofalgae in design. This year, the Nature Design Triennial at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York and the Cube Design Museum in Kerkade, Holland, as well as Paola Antonelli's Broken Nature exhibition at the Design Triennale Milano, have exhibited a number of projects demonstrating algae-based explorations in design.
This shift towards algal material in product and fashion design, could not come too soon. As the design industry is sluggishly beginning to acknowledge the ecological fallout of its love affair with fossil fuel-based plastics and other synthetics that are accelerating climate change. The potential of a carbon-negative algal material, offers a compelling glimpse at new production techniques for the future (that we needed yesterday). Yet how does a designer, rarely provided with any education in phycology nor even biology, begin to approach algae? In order for designers to effectively begin to explore algal material, more designers will need to be equipped with a basic level of understanding when it comes to the oxygen-emitting lifeforms.
For algae are a phenomenally vast and complex collection of organisms. It is estimated that there are between 30,000 and 1 million different species of algae. Of the kingdom Protista, algae have traits similar to animals, plants, and fungi, but they don't really fit into any of those categories neatly (which makes trying to sort them very tricky). Algae are among Earth's earliest lifeforms, they can be as small as a microscopic, single-celled organism (microalgae) or as big as a 200ft-long kelp (macroalgae). They can be found almost everywhere on the planet, in snow, soil, hot-springs, ponds, icebergs, lakes, rivers, oceans, in the space between bits of sand, on the shells of turtles, in the fur of sloths, on plants, on rocks, on coral, even inside of other organisms.
"Watermelon snow" reveals a variation of green algae that thrives in freezing temperatures.
They are everywhere, and ecologically-speaking, algae are heavy-hitters. Primarily aquatic, they are the base food for nearly all marine life on Earth. They are also responsible for this nice oxygen-rich atmosphere we are quickly filling with carbon. The formation of the Earths atmosphere as we know it, is in large part due to the photosynthetic efforts of algae, and even today it is thought that 50 to 85 percent of global oxygen available to land animals (us), is produced by algae.
Many refer to algae as aquatic plants, as they are photosynthetic like plants, but they differ in that they have variations in the color of their chloroplasts (unlike the typically green pigment of plants). As they are photosynthetic, they possess that now invaluable skill of sucking up carbon. This fact, paired with their prodigious ability to grow and thrive, have made them an appealing organism for designers to work with. The obvious benefits of algal material begs the question, how is there not a massive industry for this already?
Though there is a several billion dollar market for algae, it is almost entirely dominated by the food industry. Algae has many applications in preparing foods, and many by-products are used in the manufacturing of a litany of household goods. Amid the many variants, red algae is the most popular commercial food alga. You may know it as the Japanese nori (nori alone is comprised of 60-70 different species of red algae) or Dulse, in North Atlantic regions like the US and Canada. For designers these red algae offer opportunity, "Any species with human food applications is the easiest to scale since there is a high-value output that can drive the production." says Charlotte McCurdy, who's carbon-negative raincoat derived from several genera of the red algae is now on display at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.
Charlotte McCurdy's Raincoat, as featured in the Nature exhibition at Cooper Hewitt.
Close-up of McCurdy's Algae-based material.
Other algae that already have established markets include, the brown algae, Laminaria, which is eaten in soups in Japan, Korea, and China. As well as the green algae Monostroma and Ulva (Sea Lettuce). One species of green alga known as Chlorella, is so rich in protein that it has been considered a food source for extended space travel. While there are already many algae available on the market, and trends indicate that different alga will become increasingly accessible.
Agar, a by-product of red algae, is used for this award winning Agar Material by Kosuke Araki, Noriaki Maetani, Akira Muraoka photo by Kosuke Araki
Yet the means by which algae are produced and harvested must be carefully scrutinized. For some algae can actually be harmful if they grow excessively. Like cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), which, though it is responsible for producing most of the oxygen in the atmosphere it can also be extremely harmful when it proliferates. As if to emphasize the fact that algae is complicated, cyanobacteria can produce toxins and actually restrict oxygen levels in marine environments. These harmful algae blooms can release toxins into the water and air. The blooms are caused and exacerbated by human activity in marine environments, climate change, and large scale changes to ocean conditions. Which is to say, even though algae has massive potential, its probably best not to dump mass amounts of iron in marine environments with the hope that algae will solve all our problems.
To find new ways to cultivate algae, many designers have begun to explore the use of bioreactors to grow their own, while others like the think-tank Atelier Luma in Arles, France have even explored local species to understand how this ubiquitous organism might be sourced with minimal impact. Marine permaculture also offers an exciting alternative for ecological cultivation. "Wild macroalgae forests only cover a small fraction of the fertile ocean. We have an opportunity to expand supply of macroalgae without needing to do the kind of uncontrolled 'iron-dumping' that the more conventional geoengineering approach advocates." says McCurdy, "Climate change means that things will change; they have to change. We need more people involved in the decisions that will determine that change."