by David Schwartz
f all of the directions that the algae industry has pivoted to in recent years, 2017 will likely go down as the year that seaweed finally received major attention.
As the year began we passed along a story about a Korean research team at Ewha Womans University, in Seoul, South Korea that has developed the technology to manufacture eco-friendly, high performance, bioplastics using macroalgae. This technique is the first of its kind to use lipids from macroalgae for this purpose, according to the scientists. The new production process happens at room temperature and doesn’t require any exceptional pressure conditions, so the new material reduces the number of harmful bi-products emitted during the plastic manufacturing process.
Next, we learned that, as seaweed continues to gain popularity for its nutritional benefits and culinary versatility, more people are taking up seaweed foraging in order to eat it fresh, as well as sell it to restaurants in up-scale places like Napa and San Francisco. Heidi Herrmann, owner of Strong Arm Farm in Healdsburg, CA, noted that, “With the rise of those little flavored snack packs of seaweed that kids eat in their lunches, seaweed is now a normal household word.”
Then a study in Malaysia found that Kappaphycus alvarezii red seaweed helps in slowing down the growth rate of mammary tumors – which researchers say displays the alga’s potential as a natural aid in cancer treatment. K. alvarezii is an algae species cultivated for its nutrients and nutraceutical uses in South East Asia. It is an important source of kappa carrageenan, a hydrocolloid used as a food additive – acting as a gelling, emulsifying, thickening and stabilizing agent in foods, as well as for pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products.
In the Spring, an anonymous Quebec-based company that specializes in the manufacturing and commercialization of marine and seaweed-based products for agriculture and horticulture constructed a new processing plant in the maritime region of the lower St. Lawrence River in Quebec. This location provides easy access to the fresh marine raw materials the company needs, specifically, the seaweed Ascophyllum nodosum.
Their seaweed is harvested by tractor at low tide, with areas worked on a rotating basis in order to allow for continual regrowth. After harvesting, the seaweed is dried on-site at the manufacturing plant in greenhouses to ensure optimal preservation of the raw material, which is ultimately processed into high-quality crop fertilizer and soil amendments.
Another study last year showed that seaweed could turn out to be an essential ingredient in the development of more sustainable ways to power our devices. Researchers made a seaweed-derived material to help boost the performance of superconductors, lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells.
The team presented their work in April at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Francisco. “Carbon-based materials are the most versatile materials used in the field of energy storage and conversion,” Dongjiang Yang, Ph.D., said. “We wanted to produce carbon-based materials via a really ‘green’ pathway. Given the renewability of seaweed, we chose seaweed extract as a precursor and template to synthesize hierarchical porous carbon materials.”
We also saw in 2017 that researchers and industry in Norway are designing the world’s largest seaweed cultivation vessel to meet growing demand for the multi-functional algae. In Norway, which is home to 400 species, demand has begun to outstrip capacity, where much of the sowing and harvesting from cultivation farms is still carried out manually. This is unsustainable; commercial production turnover is already $140 million – and is predicted to increase to $4.8 billion by 2050. The vessel is still in the design stage, but a key requirement is that it be equipped for the gamut of operations, from the installation of seaweed cultivation facilities, to the transport and sowing of seaweed seedlings and the preservation of the fully-grown plants during harvesting and transport.
In September, the US Department of Energy (DOE) awarded $22 million in grants to fund projects for marine biomass farming for production of commercial products, including feedstock for domestic transportation fuels. The funding was provided through the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E) for 18 projects under the banner of the Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER) program. The grants are designed to help make the U.S. a top producer of macroalgae. Seaweed could furnish as much as 10% of our demand for transportation fuels, DOE officials said.
Among the major DOE grant winners are the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of California (Irvine and Santa Barbara), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of New England and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, received a grant to develop innovative cultivation and harvesting technologies for year-round production of seaweeds in tropical and subtropical U.S. Waters, for use as fuel, chemical feedstock and animal feed.
University of Connecticut Professor Charles Yarish, who has spent his career studying seaweed, was awarded a DOE grant to fund one of his dream projects. The $5.7 million grant will go to Dr. Yarish and colleagues at the University of Connecticut, and a team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to figure out if it would be viable to mass produce seaweed for use as biofuel in the federal waters 12 to 200 miles off the New England coast. That area has been designated by the U.N. as an exclusive economic zone. “We haven’t been able to exploit this zone for areas of farming, and just imagine if you can grow seaweeds like kelp…this can propel a major industry in the U.S. for this type of aquaculture,” said Dr. Yarish.
As the year rolled to a close, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) announced the launch of the ASC-MSC Seaweed Standard. The joint standard marks a first for the two certification programs, bringing together expertise in sustainable fishing and responsible aquaculture.
With increasing attention going toward the cultivation, processing and usages of macroalgae, there are signs of an explosive growth potential for this sector of the algae industry. We’ll be keeping a close eye on these developments as 2018 unfolds.