Algae for All!

By Stephanie Rosenbaumalgae

A photobioreactor on every windowsill! It might not roll off the tongue like the 1928 Republican campaign slogan promising a chicken in every pot, but according to Aaron Baum, artist, scientist, algae evangelist, and founder of AlgaeLab, growing your own spirulina is the key to personal health and vitality, and the next logical step in knowing where your food comes from.

Forget the paleo diet; blue-green alga like spirulina are the original veggies of the primordial soup, dating back some 3 billion years and outrageously high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants. They fill the seas of the world, reproducing mind-bogglingly fast on a diet of water, nutrients, minerals, and sunshine. Baum, who holds a doctorate in physics from Stanford, first promoted home algae production with a display at Burning Man in 2007; now, he does algae-farm research for NASA, looking into the feasibility of large-scale production for food, fuel, and fertilizer.

But what’s wrong with just knocking back a bottle of Odwalla Superfood? The supplements aisle of Berkeley Bowl is lousy with bottles of algae in powder and pills. And that’s the trouble, says Baum: how can you know what you’re really getting when you can’t see the source? Moreover, powdered algae is processed algae, stripped of its living energies. The fresh stuff also tastes better; each microscopic speck is encased in its own clear, gel-like skin. Processing bursts these skins, releasing the algae’s inner workings as a strong-tasting sludge. By contrast, claims Baum, live algae slide down intact, its flavor barely noticeable.

Of course, what’s good for you is good for bacteria, too. Fresh algae are extremely perishable, which means you won’t be finding chilled tubs of them in Whole Foods anytime soon. So, if you want to try them fresh, you’ve got to grow them yourself, which is where AlgaeLab’s how-to workshops and kits come in. The basic setup? A 10-gallon fish tank tricked out with aerator, heater, and tubing, and primed with a few simple food-grade chemicals and a dose of live culture. What’s crucial are the detailed instructions and troubleshooting tips that come with every kit, since spirulina can get downright finicky about reproducing in captivity. Not enough light, too much oxygen, the wrong temperature, the wrong pH, bacterial contamination: all these issues can get in the way of growing your own tank of green. According to Baum, it takes about four to six weeks for a tank to be dense enough to harvest; after that, if all goes well, you should be able to scoop out a smoothie’s worth every other day. Leftovers (or failures) make great fertilizer for the garden. Run your Prius on pond scum? Not yet, but Baum likes to think that algae-based biofuels could be the energy of the future.

For information about upcoming workshops, go to

Photo courtesy of AlgaeLab

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