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Green, Slimy and Gross ...

July 19, 2007 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Israeli professor Avigad Vonshak studies a cactus with one of his students. However, his true passion focuses on algae.

When taking a recreational dip in the ocean, swimmers tend to navigate around the seaweed. After all, it's green. It's slimy. And it seems that the best thing to do about such a gross substance, which is technically a form of algae, is to steer clear of it ... right?

Avigad Vonshak would definitely disagree. He'd rather dive right in.

The director of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Vonshak specializes in the study of algae, and sees the organism as fascinating, even profitable, rather than foul and disgusting.

"The common public thinks of two things -- a huge floating green material in the sea or the scum in their swimming pool," said Vonshak, before giving a talk to the Philadelphia chapter of the American Associates of BGU, trying to gain support for the university and its numerous desert-research programs.

But the professor highlighted potential commercial uses for algae that could change the public's perspective on the plant; in fact, it could go from gross to high-grossing.

Vonshak -- who studies only microscopic strands of algae -- discussed using the organism as a potential source for renewable bio-diesel fuel.

He explained that because of its high concentration of lipids, or fats, algae could be converted into a usable form of power.

"Diesel [fuel] is basically fat," said the white-haired professor, who donned round glasses and spoke with a thick accent, which is derived from his native country of Germany.

Since algae is easy to grow and can be harvested daily, many experts believe that it can produce more oil per acre than conventional crops like corn.

But why would a man who lives in the middle of the Negev Desert study a plant that grows in water?

Explained Vonshak: Growing algae takes no soil, which presents little problem in the desert. It actually turns out to be a perfect place for such a thing because algae requires high temperatures and lots of light.

He also noted that algae can be grown in brackish or slightly salty water, also abundant in the Negev.

Plus, the professor noted that algae is a rather simple organism to study. Since he only works with microscopic strands of it, there are not many variables, which in turn makes the science more exact.

"Algae does not have flowers; it does not make fruit," he said. "It gives the ability to address a specific question without being disturbed by side effects."

The professor also highlighted another, very different use of algae: as a nutritional supplement. With a high concentration of protein and beta carotene, algae has been converted into supplements sold at nutrition stores. "It's an efficient anti-oxidant. It's supposed to make you stronger and younger."

Vonshak also mentioned the use of algae as a dye for make-up, such as eye shadow, as well for food coloring in products like mayonnaise and margarine. Another coloring use is in salmon, whose skin tone is naturally pink because the fish consume algae in their natural environment. However, in an artificial setting, the fish's skin color doesn't take on its normal tone.

"When you grow salmon in cages and feed them with artificial foods, salmon flesh is gray," he revealed. "Adding algae allows them to go to their natural pigment."

Vonshak added that the economic impact of such a product can be felt in both developed and developing nations.

In Israel, a country with a small internal market for farmers, it allows for another export, and thus creates more business, said the academic. In developing countries, algae farms can provide a cheap source of protein -- which, in some cases, can be the difference between having food and not having food.

"It's another way of providing protein to themselves and feeding the children. Or they can give it to the chicken or fish, rather than having to import protein sources. It's a big savings."

These aren't just theories. Vonshak has helped teach people how to cultivate and use algae in places like Thailand, India, Chile and Costa Rica.

"A significant part of the concept is teaching. You have to train local people how to do it. Or else we'll set it up, and it will just collapse when we leave." 

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