Seaweed is an important but under-exploited resource for food and feed ingredients, biochemicals and the production of biofuels. But it has been difficult to harvest efficiently on a large scale. Until now. The EU-funded AT~SEA project has developed advanced textiles that give high yields from floating seaweed farms and allow easy, mechanised cultivation.
Project coordinator Bert Groenendaal of Belgium-based Sioen Industries said that farming seaweed on the scale made possible by the new textiles can help create a multi-billion euro industry in Europe – boosting growth and jobs. Sioen is one of seven companies involved in the project, along with four research centres.
He said: “The economic potential for seaweed is huge. Businesses are interested in seaweed for many different applications such as food and food additives, animal feed, chemicals and even fuel.”
European Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said: “AT~SEA is just one example among many of how EU funding helps researchers and businesses collaborate to innovate. This research will allow EU businesses to farm a valuable resource efficiently, helping them compete in global markets. Horizon 2020, the EU’s new €80 billion research programme supports companies and businesses in bringing new ideas from lab to market quickly and cost-effectively.”
Tests of AT~SEA’s textiles at trial sites in Solund, Norway, Oban, Scotland and Galway, Ireland have produced yields of up to 16 kg of wet seaweed per square metre – three to five times the yield of traditional seaweed farming.
Currently, seaweed is obtained by harvesting wild seaweed or by rope-based cultivation. Neither of these scale up easily as both methods are labour-intensive with relatively low yields.
The project team developed textiles that can support large numbers of seaweed plants without breaking up or attracting unwanted plants or molluscs. Bio-sourced coatings on the textiles protect young seaweed and boost growth.
The textiles are suitable for large, 1 mm-thin mats on which seaweed plants grow, held a couple of metres below the sea’s surface. When the seaweed is fully grown, ship-based machines cut the plants from the mats and direct them to flexible storage tanks made from AT~SEA’s advanced textiles.
In September 2014, AT~SEA will start cultivating 200 square metres of mats at each of the three trial sites. The aim is to evaluate their potential for commercial use. Groenendaal estimated that yields could increase to 20-25 kg per square metre as the consortium refines its techniques.
The AT~SEA consortium has applied for a patent on the textiles. After the project ends in July 2015, the consortium plans to establish a 2 to 3 hectare cultivation site through a commercial company to be spun off from AT~SEA.
Project also sees commercial uses for the textiles beyond seaweed cultivation. These uses include other types of aquaculture and flexible containers for transporting fresh water by sea.
There are many potential uses for seaweed. Some are sources of biochemicals for medicines, natural cosmetics and organic fertilisers. Others show promise for sustainable biofuel production if harvested in the quantities needed for industrial production.
Food and food ingredients are yet another potential use. Some species are farmed extensively and eaten directly in Asian countries. Here in Europe, processed foods such as chocolate milk, yoghurts, health drinks and beers contain seaweed polysaccharides such as agars, carrageenans and alginates as binders or emulsifiers. High‐value lipids and proteins, antioxidants, gelling agents, vitamins and essential minerals can also be extracted from seaweed for food production.
Large-scale seaweed farming could also have a positive impact on the ocean’s ecosystem. Farmed seaweed can help absorb excess CO2 in seawater and waste nutrients from nearby fish farms. It also provides safe habitats for wild fish and shellfish that might otherwise be threatened by fishing.
About the AT~SEA project
The AT~SEA project, supported with €3.4 million in EU funding, brought together 6 SMEs, 1 large company and 4 research centres from Belgium, Ireland, Morocco, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and the UK.
The project received funding under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (2007-2013).
On 1 January 2014, the European Union launched a new, seven year research and innovation funding programme called Horizon 2020. Over the next seven years almost €80 billion will be invested in research and innovation projects to support Europe’s economic competitiveness and extend the frontiers of human knowledge. The EU research budget is focused mainly on improving everyday life in areas like health, the environment, transport, food and energy. Research partnerships with the pharmaceutical, aerospace, car and electronics industries also encourage private-sector investment in support of future growth and high-skilled job creation. Horizon 2020 will have an even greater focus on turning excellent ideas into marketable products, processes and services.