Flemish trailblazers champion potential of seaweed

Summary

A handful of local companies and researchers are betting on the potential of seaweed to become both a viable energy resource and a staple of our diet, but they have encountered both practical obstacles and stubborn misperceptions along the way

Limitless applications

Seaweed doesn’t elicit strong reactions in most people. But many scientists are getting very excited about this marine algae. They are betting that seaweed will become an essential energy resource, as global leaders try to move toward a more ecological future.

With its ambitious plans for the mass-production and harvesting of seaweed in the North Sea, a Flemish textile company recently joined the growing seaweed movement.

“Since about 70% of the surface of our Earth consists of water, there is a huge potential to produce seaweed for different applications,” says Bert Groenendaal from Sioen, which is co-ordinating the seaweed cultivation project At Sea. “In Asia, huge amounts of seaweed are already being produced, but in a very labour-intensive way that is only profitable because of the low salaries being paid.”

In 2012, a European consortium began working on a new technique to grow and harvest mass amounts of seaweed, one that wouldn’t require expensive and extensive manpower. The At Sea project is primarily being funded by the European Commission and was originally established by Sioen, which is based in Ardooie, West Flanders.

Bexco and Centexbel, both based in East Flanders, also rank amongst the 11 project partners, the rest of which are located across Europe.

Using their expertise in textile materials, Groenendaal and his colleagues tried to develop innovative sheets on which seaweed could be grown in larger quantities as an alternative to the ropes typically used today. The company’s ambition was to create these cultivation sheets, ropes to stabilise the sheets in the water and a special coating that would improve the efficiency of seaweed growth.

Encouraging results

Two years and six months into the project, the multidisciplinary At Sea team, which includes textile experts, marine engineers and biochemists, has successfully completed the first test phase. The team succeeded in producing seaweed on a small scale at three North Sea sites in Scotland, Ireland and Norway.

We managed to produce double the traditional production volume

- At Sea co-ordinator Bert Groenendaal

“We sprayed the 200-square-metre sheets with young seaweed, and in September of last year, we put the sheets about one metre under water,” Groenendaal explains. At this depth, the seaweed can receive the necessary sunlight to grow without being exposed to other damaging natural elements such as strong winds.

The seawater at the North Sea location needs to contain enough phosphor, which seaweed feeds on. “We specifically used sugar weed, for which the moderate temperatures of the North Sea are ideal,” says Groenendaal.

When the team harvested the seaweed in May, the results were just what they had hoped. “We managed to produce about 15 kilograms per square metre, which is about double the traditional production volume,” says Groenendaal, who adds that he feels confident that they will be able to achieve the ambitious volume of 20kg per square metre by the end of the project. 

Looking ahead

The new types of ropes used in the At Sea project stabilised the sheets extremely well and even withstood a strong winter storm at the Ireland site. “While the traditional ropes used by other producers were severely damaged, ours remained in terrific condition,” says Groenendaal.

Not only did the team successfully create an advanced cultivation system, they also developed an innovative seaweed storage method. The experts built so-called flexitanks, large bags made out of coated textile, which were placed underwater at the production site.

Seaweed can be stored in its natural environment for several months in such tanks. “If you produce large quantities of seaweed, factories cannot process all of it fast enough,” explains Groenendaal. “The flexitanks will allow us to spread out the processing of the harvest.”

In September, the At Sea team will again place its special sheets in the water at the same three North Sea sites, but this time the production scale will be upped. Groenendaal feels confident that the results of this crop, which will be harvested in May, will be equally successful – and he is already looking further ahead.

“We don’t want this enterprise to end in July, when the European project finishes,” he says. “Together with other partners in the consortium, we hope to establish a start-up company to commercialise our activities. The potential to produce around the world is huge.” 

A sea change

Mass-cultivation of seaweed is one thing, a market is another. If Groenendaal’s commercial project succeeds, what will be done with these large batches of seaweed? 

That’s one of the main questions that Flemish researcher Sue Ellen Taelman from Ghent University (UGent) wants to answer with her algenweb platform, which she launched together with her partner, Yuri Hellyn, an internet entrepreneur. By posting and linking to accessible articles, the website works to inform the general public about the various possibilities that algae offer. 

Most people don’t understand the enormous potential of seaweed

- UGent researcher Sue Ellen Taelman

At UGent, Taelman is the resident expert on the environmental impact of seaweed production. “When I talk about my specialisation, I get a lot of negative reactions about how dirty and distasteful seaweed is,” says Taelman, who also devoted her Master’s thesis to the topic. “Most people don’t understand the enormous potential of seaweed and only think of toxic algae or harmful algal blooms, a perception that I hope to change a little through my website.”

Taelman is currently working on two major projects: the Omega-Extract project supported by the government of Flanders and the EnAlgae project, primarily funded by the European Union.

Omega-Extract is being backed by the Flanders Innovation Hub for Sustainable Chemistry and brings together three partners: UGent, the University of Leuven and the Flemish Institute for Technical Research. The goal of Omega-Extract is to produce stable, omega-3 rich algae oil, which boasts several advantages compared to the omega-3 oils currently commercially available.

If successful, it would be possible to use these algae in cosmetic products without the negative side effects on their colour, odour and stability.

Shifting ambitions

The original goal of EnAlgae was to use algae for the production of biofuels, but this ambition has partly changed since the project was launched in 2011. “It became clear that the production of algae to create energy is far from cost-efficient for the moment,” Taelman says. 

The focus of EnAlgae, which will run until next June, has consequently partly shifted to other research domains such as the purification of waste water. In Flanders, researchers at West Flanders University College designed a test installation that was originally placed at the site of agro-food company Inagro in Rumbeke, West Flanders. The installation has since been moved to purify the waste water of the Wevelgem-based company Alpro, which makes soy-based foods and drinks.

“Basically, the algae absorb the phosphor and carbon dioxide from the waste water,” explains Taelman. “Not only is the waste water purified, the algae can also still be used as a fertiliser, for instance. These kinds of biorefineries on a small and large scale have a huge potential to be used in industrial environments.”

Some algae offer great ecological alternatives to other food substances because they are full of vitamins, iron and proteins. “Since seaweed is produced in water, its cultivation does not compete with the production of food products on land and does not necessitate the cutting down of forests,” Taelman says.

In the future, seaweed could, she continues, “replace the production of soy for cattle fodder for which acres of land are now used in Latin America, for example. Furthermore, since seaweed also uses carbon dioxide to grow, it helps to reduce the amount of the harmful gas in our ecosystem.”

A long way to go

In Asia, seaweed is also very popular as a consumer product because of its healthy reputation. “Seaweed can easily be incorporated into food, without any effect on the appearance of the product,” says Taelman, “but there is still some way to go to convince the food sector and consumers in our region of its beneficial effects.”

The list of possible seaweed applications goes on and on

- UGent researcher Sue Ellen Taelman

The UGent researcher is considering including a webshop on her site to support commercial initiatives that use seaweed in food products. “The list of possible applications goes on and on, however,” she says. “Algae could be used in the future for medical applications, to make bioplastics and substances for the chemical industry.”

Taelman believes more investments and long-term projects are needed to bring the algae research from its current test phase to the ultimate production of viable commercial products.

Still, progress is being made, she says. “In Flanders, the Vlaams Algenplatform is trying to form a network of organisations by providing information about the events, financing and conclusions of different projects related to algae research.”

The Ghent researcher hopes that with more of these kinds of initiatives, algae will gradually become accepted as part of our daily lives.

A handful of local companies and researchers are betting on the potential of seaweed to become both a viable energy resource and a staple of our diet, but they have encountered both practical obstacles and stubborn misperceptions along the way.

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