Seaweed has great potential as a raw material in the circular economy. The industry’s interest in this versatile plant is on the rise. Wageningen Food & Biobased Research has been exploring seaweed for many years with the aim of mapping its potential and developing technologies to unlock valuable components.
Seaweed is brimming with valuable minerals, proteins and sugars. Its cultivation currently focuses on the available hydrocolloids, such as alginates, which are used on a significant scale in food like sushi, salad and sweets, or as a thickening agent. According to Paulien Harmsen, senior researcher at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, other valuable components are still being underused. “The trick is to get the most from seaweed and link specific components to end products. Examples include a wide range of products, from food and animal feed to bioplastics, chemicals and fuels.”
Biorefinery and fermentation of seaweed
In its research into seaweed, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research primarily focuses on using the whole product. In the current industrial production of hydrocolloids only about 25 per cent of the seaweed is being used. Harmsen: “Seaweed has an entirely different structure than ‘land plants’. It demands specific biorefinery processes in which we try to use enzymes from the marine environment as much as possible as well as the least amount of chemicals. We use these processes to unlock the valuable components. Micro-organisms are then set to work via fermentation to convert these components into building blocks for products.”
In its seaweed research, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research works closely with companies, government authorities and fellow knowledge institutes. Some of the work involves confidential bilateral research, while other studies take place in public private partnerships. Examples include:
- EOS: a Dutch research programme into the possibilities for the cultivation and biorefinery of seaweed;
- EU SeaBioPlas: a European research programme into the conversion of sugars from seaweed into lactic acid and polylactic acid (PLA);
- TO2 partnership: research by Wageningen University & Research, Deltares, ECN, Marin and TNO into seaweed as a solution for the demand for food, animal feed and energy worldwide;
- EU Macrofuels: a Horizon 2020 programme focused on the development of bio-fuels from seaweed;
- EU Macrocascade: a BBI programme aimed at cascading seaweed into food, animal feed and materials.
Seaweed, wind turbine parks and fish farming
Seaweed could develop into one of the pillars of the circular economy. An important benefit is that cultivation could take place at sea instead of on valuable agricultural land. Moreover, large-scale cultivation at sea can easily be combined with offshore wind turbine parks and fish farming. The latter combination would even result in a valuable symbiosis as seaweed extracts effluents from the water.
Follow-up research into seaweed
Follow-up research in the coming years should have various goals, according to Harmsen: “To meet the demand from the market we initially have to expand the production of seaweed. This requires efficient growing methods. We also want to study how we can better utilise sidestreams from the existing seaweed industry, for example via the production of chemical building blocks for materials or bio-fuels. I expect to have a good idea of how we can optimally extract value from seaweed by 2020.”