The Eco-friendly Past
September 13, 2023

By Nazaha Izdihar, 2022 Future Blue Youth Council member

Featured Image: “Before It’s Too Late” by Chloe Kim (Washington)

This year, for my school science fair project, I decided to investigate the efficiency of using steam distillation to extract oil out of naturally grown algae. I collected a scoop of algae from a local pond, put it under the microscope at my school lab to confirm the species (Spirogyra), and made my own amateur steam distillation system using tools I had at hand.

Steam distillation is a traditional separation process and a historical method of extracting essential oils out of plant materials. Water is evaporated in a flask and the dry steam is passed through the leaves in another flask. The pressure and heat from the steam causes the microscopic sacs in the leaves to release their essential oils, which travels in the form of vapour along with the steam from water into the condensation flask. As both the oil and water condense from their gaseous states, the oil pools up on the top of collected liquified water as the two don’t mix.

The steam distillation process in its simplest form.

Although algae is not classified as a plant in modern science, it is also temperature sensitive, which ideally makes steam distillation a suitable method for extracting algal oil. I found nothing when researching past attempts of using steam distillation on algae, so I created my science project based on the hypothesis that this process would successfully yield oil out of Spirogyra.

Overall, I thought I had done fantastic in coming up with a unique project. I was euphoric at this point. I was gonna be famous!

When I told my grandpa about it, he was not impressed.

“We used to extract oil out of algae back in my days when I grew up in the village,” he said as a matter of fact.

“What, really?”

“Yes, they have the ghani in villages. We would use it to extract oil out of algae for energy purposes. That was before fossil fuels were introduced and became popular.”

Ghani (edge mill) in action. Used for crushing or grinding, it is still common in remote Bengali villages.

I was shocked. I had always thought that our search for clean energy sources started with the rise of eco-friendly movements. I honestly imagined we only recently discovered the oil properties of algae when a biologist with a big moustache in some lab suddenly had his “Eureka!” moment after compressing some algae samples out of curiosity. I had assumed my generation was the first to start working for the environment, while older generations only focused on industrial development with little regard to our planet.

I never thought algal oil was part of the traditional knowledge of my ancestors. I never thought that it was the younger generations that pulled the older generation out of their earth-friendly practices. From algal oil to fossil fuel, really? And now here we are, trying to reverse that after so many decades.

Outside of my culture, many indigenous communities across the world have used algae for medicine and food. Traditional herbs went out of fashion as we began to heavily depend on synthetic pharmaceuticals that have profound effects on marine life, such as decreasing vitality, reducing growth, and causing deformities of diatom species.

Hygiene is another example of something that has become more wasteful when compared to traditional methods. Before Western-style showers were introduced, people used to conserve their water supply by bathing with a small mug to pour the water all over their body. Only a decade back, it was still common to see people brushing their teeth using miswak – a small stick prepared from the roots or small branches of a tree called Salvadora persica.


This ancient tradition of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia faded with the introduction of modern toothbrushes and toothpaste. The plastic waste from toothbrushes and a few particular toothpaste ingredients have become long-term environmental concerns.

The modern world has finally started to move towards the right track in order to create more ecological awareness and take steps to fund and innovate solutions to protect and save the planet. But maybe we should take a step back and pay attention to the wisdom of older generations: they may know more than we give them credit for.

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The Eco-friendly Past

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