#5 – Ocean and Coastal (re)forestation and more

This case is part of a series written by Alexander Prinsen. It is the outcome of a research project where dozens of cases where analysed for their potential to merge (eco)Logical Thinking with (eco)Nomic Doing. The cases series are a first summery of main examples which are transformative for their industry. Each of these cases provide breakthrough thinking and scientific evidence how Physics, Biology and Green Chemistry can solve environmental degradation, provide better products, generate profitable business cases and contribute to the whole system we call home, Spaceship Earth.

Author: Alexander Prinsen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Systemic Design Image: Madeleyn Mendoza M, Turin, Italy
Version: 10 July 2020
Review status: Permanent Beta Version

Disclaimer: If you find facts which can be refined or which would elaborate the case further, please let me know. There is always room to do better and learn.

Tags: Seaweed; Energy; Food; Healthcare; Medicine; Water; Fatty Acids; Reforestation; Oceans; Biomass; 3D Farming; feeding the world; Biorefinery;

The relevance of this case

This case will help better to understand the impact of the lesser known 3rd soil, Water (after the Air and the Land), inside our spaceship Earth. This 3rd soil includes all water bodies including our oceans, rivers, and lakes. And it turns out water bodies have the capacity, with the right biodiversity, to reverse ocean acidification, to better protect coastal zones and to clean water of among others micro-plastics and containment’s. Along the way it is also able to produce large volumes of biomass for the supply of food, bio-chemicals, fertilizer and energy. And even more remarkable ocean reforestation is also able to feed the growing world population next to land-based agriculture. Some have estimated it is even possible to counter balance rising sea level by only through the storage of water inside aquatic biomass, all of which can be done in our oceans. Not so strange when you know aquatic biomass and more specific seaweeds are filled with vitamins, Omega-3 and -6 and around 46 minerals. So, it turns out biodiversity is able to provide so much more than we can image and at the same time solve so many of the human challenges, all in one go including benefiting the biosphere and oceans. 

When you think of it, our Spaceship surface consists of 70 percent water (oceans and water bodies), while land only covers the remaining 30 percent. And oceans store the largest volume of water inside our Spaceship Earth.  More interesting the same oceans are also responsible for over 70 percent of the global oxygen production, thanks to micro- (like spirulina) and macroalgae (like seaweed). These Algae’s turn out to be one of the main drivers in maintaining the soil of our global oceans. They act as the feedstock for the Bacteria, Fungi, and Animals (Shell fish, swimming fish and even some plankton species) living in the fresh and salt water bodies. They are the plants of the oceans so to say.  In retrospect trees as it turns out are only responsible for the remaining 30 percent. Thus, it becomes evident the 3rd soil is a vital part of the complex global hydrogen, carbon and other cycles impacting climate change and the habitat of our Spaceship. Any slight change to this delicate equilibrium will have systemic implications for the whole system.

When you look from an evolution perspective the origin of life came from the water bodies, like oceans and ponds, in the first place. And after billions of years of evolution we are coming back full circle to the cradle of life where it all started! When you know life originated from the water bodies, it is even more remarkable how important our waters are for the survival of the human species. It is no coincidence to discover also the human body consists of over 70 percent of water, so it becomes even more evident water has an important role to play.

So, in a way this case on seaweeds is the ocean’s Los Gaviotas (case #1) case on how reforesting oceans is able to regenerate ocean bodies and bring the climate system back to its evolutionary patch. The ocean’s added value are the opportunities to apply 3-Dimensional integrated farming techniques, which are able to produce more value from one vertical meter of water mass. And stimulate biomass growth in quantities beyond the human’s wildest dreams.

So how can ocean farming mitigate the climate breakdown and become a regenerative transformer? Let us explore the main actors of this case, the Macro Algae’s and its seaweeds species.

The main actors of this case, the seaweeds

The name Seaweed turns out to be not as very appropriate. Firstly, because macroalgae includes marine plants and algae growing in fresh and salt water bodies. And Secondly, the word weed is actually a human invention for species which grow fast and spread around into for humans unwanted directions.

Algae have the capability to photosynthesize. Actually, Algae are capable to convert sunlight five times more efficient into chemical energy than land-based plants. Because seaweeds had to find a balance between being constantly submersed in a (salty) water medium and create a biomass structure which would be able to survive, they have been very clever is solving this paradox. They extract carbon and minerals from their water environment through a unique membrane system, keeping the unwanted molecules out. This is why Seaweeds contain like their land plants a type of crystalline cellulose. This cellulose provides the structural cell strength and interesting enough seaweeds have none or almost no lignin. This makes seaweed in particular very interesting as feedstock for instance bio-digesters, as lignin is hard to breakdown by microorganisms.  Seaweeds can be categorised into three main groups, Red, Brown and Green Algae’s.

The Red Algae(Rhodophyceae) species consist over 7.000 species, with only 200 species living in fresh water bodies. The edible food Red Algae species are the Porphyra growing in cold and shallow seawater. They are famous for making Nori (Japanese name for red algae species like Porphyra Yezoensis and Porphyra Tenera species) and is generally used in sushi rolls. In Korea they call them Gim and in United Kingdom they are called Laver.  Another edible group are the Palmaria Palmate (also known as dulse) which like to grow where the tidal is most active and like to be submerged half of the time. They can be eaten directly or can be processed into pasta, snacks, bread and other applications, which are a delicacy in Ireland. The species Umutgasari (Geldium Amansii), Tengusa (Gelidiaceae) and Ogonori (Gracilaria) are Red Algae species growing in shallow waters. These species are famous for their Agar (a polymer from galactose) content and used as food additives in much of what we eat.

The Green Algae(Chlorophyceae) are a diverse group. They are green because the chloroplast they contain has a green cell pigment. They are generally grouped as Viridiplantae containing around 500.000 green Algae species. The edible species are the Ulvophyceae and Enteromorpha species, also called the Sea Lettuce, and they prefer to grow in shallow and sheltered places. The other know species are the Monostroma species [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monostroma] and are native in the Japanese waters. The name Green Laver is a wider category combining some of eatable Monstroma and Enteromorpha species, which by the way are used in Ireland to make great bread. Than you have also the Caulerpa Lentilifera and the invasive and eatable Wakame seaweed (Undaria pinnatifida).

The last seaweeds are grouped as theBrown Algae (Phaeophyceae), the larger multicellular algae. Their name is thanks to the pigment fucoxanthin, which gives its brown colour. There are around 2.000 know brown algae species. Also, the brown Algae contains more sugar (polysaccharide) than the other red and green algae, making them an interesting commercial species for fermentation into biochemicals and biofuel. The most known are the Kelps (which are part of Laminariales species) because of their unique submersed forests. They can reach lengths of over 60 meters in the deep waters in mostly the rocky [1] and high nutrients waters found of the west coast of North and South Americas, North East USA, South Africa, Australia, between Japan and Alaska. Kelps are known to be full of calcium (even more than milk), iron (higher concentration than spinach) and full of fibres. Than you have the Sargassum (floating in the Sargasso Sea) which is able to create large floating islands on the oceans. They are mostly edible and some are delicately like the Kombu. The Brown Algae species Ascophyllum, Durvillaea, Ecklonia, Laminaria, Lessonia, Macrocystis contain large concentrations of Alginate, a molecule they created to provide structure much like the molecule Lignin land-based plants created. Because Alginate is a polymer like structure it can be used as substitute for plastic applications. Then there is also the Alaria species, which is known to contain large concentrations of magnesium. Brown seaweed is also high in Lipids (oil) contents making it interesting for bioplastics processing by esterification of the lipids.

The brown and red Seaweed cells contain three interesting gelling like molecules called hydrocolloids (agar, alginate and carrageenan), a form of hydrophilic polymers which can be used for instance as food additive.

The ocean’s Soil

In to why ocean soils are so important, its large surface and its massive amounts of water storage (as liquid and solid ice) is provides us the clues. Oceans are a deposit of (rare)minerals and thus also salts, therefore it’s the ideal cradle of all (ancient) life. It is due to physics what made it possible to create such a diverse and adaptable water molecule for the entire universe. When you learn water has over 77 animalities and counting [2], it makes sense water has a systemic function to sustain life in any circumstance, in the air, in the deepest ocean trenches of more than 7000 meters or even out in space. For example, in order to sustain life in our Spaceship, the temperature of waterbodies never drops below 4degrees Celsius (it freezes on the surface yet never in the water underneath otherwise life would actually freeze to death).[3] This is thanks to the properties and density differences between salts and fresh water. And gravity also has different effect on the density properties of water. Water is moved by the gravitation force of the Moon and also the wind has influence on the global water distribution around the oceans. In addition, it is not so strange therefore the main non biological driving force for ocean currents are warm, cold, wind, gravity and salinity.

It becomes even more interesting when we add biology and thus life in the equation. Biological presence is enhancing the importance of oceans, due to their oxygen production, carbon capture capacity (converting carbon into biomass), organic carbon ocean deposits (actually it turns out carbon is also a driver for ocean currents) and their supportive system to a much larger web of life. Not so strange when you know oceans contains 50 times more carbon that air, so it has enough building blocks to produce life by itself. And now we know why we are back again to the cradle of life where it all started.  And now also studies are starting to link seaweed with the evolution of the early Homo sapiens. Seaweed might have contributed to the better nutrient diet for these early humans.

At the center for this case are the macroalgae (microalgae are having their own case) a transformative powerhouse generally referred to as Seaweeds. So, what is the impact Algae have as restorative power booster for the Spaceship Earth. To understand the full picture, we need to breakdown different aspects of the ocean system:

  • Planetary Oxidation
  • Ocean Acidification
  • Ocean Warming
  • Ocean Level Rising
  • Water cleaning system & Nitrification
  • Ocean storm barrier
  • Carbon Disposition (Blue Carbon)
  • Feeding the world

Planetary Oxidation
Firstly, it is important to note the actual impact of the emergence of photosynthetic bacterial species (which are classified as microalgae species) to our spaceship earth. Around 2 billion years ago they figure out how to use the photons coming from the sun for a more efficient metabolic pathway than the one they were using. [4] This new metabolic pathway had an interesting byproduct namely large quantities of oxygen which they waste into the atmosphere. The outcome is the first known and largest mass extinction of species called the great Oxidation event. It is estimated around 90 percent of the species died out at that time because oxygen was for the other 90 percent of the species poisonous [5] as there were not able to metabolize oxygen or had anti-oxidant molecules. Ever since the Algae’s kept producing oxygen from waterbodies. Interesting enough today the understanding of oxidation event is now helping astrobiologist to search for microalgae lifeforms on other planets.

Ocean Acidification
Secondly, the ocean pH is gradually dropping from originally 8.2 to 8.1, and it is expected it could fall further to 7.8. Although this seems a tiny irrelevant change, yet the pH scale is a logarithmic one, so small changes have exponential impact. The ocean acidification is driven by the increasing intake of carbon dioxide by the oceans. The CO2 molecule binds itself with water, producing H+ ions as output which generate a more acid environment. With more and more CO2 is being dissolved in water, it is creating more H+ ions and thus accelerating acidification. Especially species with seashells structures based on calcium carbonate (CaCO3) are finding it hard to protect themselves against it, as their shells are starting to dissolve in the ocean water.  This process is creating more CO2, carbonic acid (H2CO), bicarbonate (HCO) and carbonate (CO32-), further accelerating the acidification.

Interesting enough seaweeds (and off course life in general) are able to extract the carbon from the water bodies for their own biomass growth. This process enables seaweed to control the pH levels around them and thus slowing the acidification process [6]. So, in order to counter balance rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, it suffices to replant the oceans with massive seaweed ocean forests to extract the access carbon molecule from the oceans. [7] And in general, bringing back life to the oceans as they are getting depleted from life (see also the case about insect’s protein). Seaweed farms will therefore have massive local impact taking out the carbon emissions emitted by the human industrial system for their own growth and creating opportunities from the massive ocean farming biomass.

Ocean Warming
Thirdly, the global warming is also heating up our oceans systems. For one the oceans are buffering the access heat from the atmosphere, resulting in a faster rising ocean temperature estimate to increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. This warming of oceans is further affecting global ocean’s currents and ocean water evaporation which in return is influencing the global change in climates.  The ocean warming is already having a devastating effect on marine biodiversity. For instance, coral reefs are experiencing bleaching and dying, coupled also with the ocean acidification. For instance the Kelp forests in the Tasman Sea will not survive the temperature rise due to its lack of migration capabilities. Others like the Sargassum (brown algae) species are already creating issues in the Caribbean as they bloom in the warmer oceans and extract oxygen from the water surface. So, it seems some seaweeds will be able to adapt and possibly counter the rising temperature sea levels, by still providing biomass to support the web of life. [8]

Ocean Level Rising
Fourthly, the ocean warming effect cascades towards more melting of ice in the Artic and also on land. In addition, warmer ocean requires its water to expand and thus needing more space to store the warmer water. Both effects are leading towards enhancing rising globally sea-levels rise.

Because seaweeds have a minimal content of 50% fresh water in their fibres, they are able to absorb large amounts of salt and brackish water, while at that the same time converting them into fresh water inside their membranes. The scientist Carl Hodgehas calculated it should be possible to counter the ocean level rise by reforesting the oceans and creating mangrove systems which will be able to take in and desalinate the salty ocean waters. By bringing the fresh water from the seaweeds back into the land, the fresh water aquifers near oceans could be replenished, reducing the inland salt water penetration drastically also partially due to the rising sea levels.

Water cleaning system
Fifthly, because seaweed needs to extract its minerals from their surrounding water environment, they are one of the most effective water cleaning species on the planet. This might also be the reason why Seaweeds grow much faster than the land-based plants and why they became the main oxygen production units inside our spaceship earth. As such they have the capability to clean contaminated water bodies as a scrubber, extracting the toxic minerals from the water into their cells. Experiments with cultivating seaweed near commercial fish farms have shown seaweed is able to clean the fish nutrients runoff out of the surrounding water.

The same is found to be valid for the extraction of microplastic from ocean water. Seaweed might thus also prove to be an ally in extracting microplastics from our oceans. The processing of the seaweed needs to be carefully done though, as one of the current best solutions is to use the biomass for biogas generation containing the microplastics and then use pyrolyze to breakdown the sludge.

Because Seaweeds are masters in filtering nutrients from their water bodies, they are generally high in Iodine, Vitamin C, Calcium, fibres and are low in fat.  In addition, they contain other important minerals like potassium, sodium, magnesium, zinc, copper, chloride, sulphur, phosphorous, vanadium, cobalt, manganese, selenium, bromine, arsenic, iron and fluorine. All of which are highly valuable minerals for metabolic pathways for all the other kingdoms of Nature.

Sixthly, much of ocean nitrogen deposits comes mostly from runoff land-based agriculture fertilizers. The levels of ocean nitrogen are now 50 percent above normal levels. These high levels of nitrogen are intoxicating the web of life and sometimes even creating dead zones where only jelly fish seem to be able to survive. The abundant nitrate resource is also stimulating the growth of some micro- and macroalgae producing additional toxic blooms, killing the remaining marine species as an unintended consequence. Because the excess nitrogen is stimulating algae growth, it will become the (re)newed source of nitrogen fertilizer for the soil of the land-based farmland.

Ocean storm barrier
Seventhly, in addition especially the brown algae Kelp is able to act as a coastal storm barrier as the kelp forests are able to absorb the energy for incoming waves. In addition, the waves also stimulate the kelps to strengthen their cellulosic cell structure creating more fibres. Everything always has a reason and function in nature.

Carbon Disposition (Blue Carbon)
Eighthly, seaweed farming in deeper waters is expected to contribute to the richness of the ocean seabed soil. Dead seaweed will float down towards the ocean beds, providing a food source of the various kingdoms living deep below. It is estimated this downward flow of biomass and carbon is partly responsible for deep ocean currents and acting as deep ocean carbon storage deposits. This type of Blue Carbon might be a possible living carbon storage solution for the long term while absorbing the carbon and other minerals from the water. Interesting enough these carbon deposits is how the fossil oil and gas carbons were created billion years ago. 

Feeding the world
Ninthly, last but not least, historical there has always been a close relationship between coastal populations and seaweed. Civilizations living close to oceans (Iceland, Ireland, Polynesia, China, Japan, Egypt, Romans and Australia to name a few) have long understood the beneficial value of the macro-Algae’s. They learned over eons how to cultivate and harvest the ocean’s lookalike plant species for a wide range of applications. They have used seaweed as an agricultural fertilizer, food source, medicine for wound treatment (burns, rashes or to treat certain forms of breast cancer) and the Danish are known to have used the cellulose based material as construction material.  The Irish and Scottish have been using seaweed as feedstock for their cows and sheep’s for thousands of years The additional benefit, which they were unaware of, was a large reduction of methane emissions by their farting cows due to the existence of some unique gut bacteria. We will learn more about this later.

From the 1990’s there was an increased awareness on the growing shortage of agricultural land. Scientists started to look towards the cradle of the origin of life, the oceans water bodies. With over 70% of the Spaceship Earth covered by water, the computation of the agricultural potential is a no brainer. Farming in the oceans does not compete with the remaining farmable agricultural land, which are now down to 40% of the total agricultural potential due to soil degradation. Interesting enough oceans contain all the required nutrients to create the extensive biodiversity to flourish, including the blooming of algae, so no artificial fertilizers are required for their growth. Actually, due to the massive global agricultural soil erosion of the phosphate and nitrate nutrients, the oceans have accumulated the runoffs. The oceans now contain such a high concentration it is making some algae bloom who can exploit the abundance.

Integrated Seawater 3D Poly/Agriculture Systems

Looking at how ancient civilisations solved their food challenges we need to look to Asia for their integrated farming systems. They have pioneered, long before agriculture arrived in the west, how to integrate various agricultural systems and semi-aquatic systems together. It used to be common to combine rice paddies with fish, ducks and microalgae to optimize the nutrient balances between the kingdoms. Due this integrated farming systems they have proven to generate more nutrient value per hectare. The integrated kingdoms are providing more nutrient value in vitamins and minerals over delivering what other systems, like GMO rice, can provide. [9]  

The awareness of what “traditional” farming techniques provides, is slowly being rediscovered and new agricultural business models are emerging based on integrated poly cultural systems. Farming in aquatic systems is proving to function on the same logic. Due to the highly integrated system of the five kingdoms the yield per vertical meter is higher generating multiple cash flows the system with other benefits from additional ecosystem regeneration. A more industrial system imitating nature are for instance constructed wetlands and Hydroponics to an extent, where the valuable nutrients are cascade through the aquatic system.

Understanding the integrated connections of ocean web of life, it becomes evident it is possible to emulate nature’s ocean soils to bring back biodiversity with a rich list of additional benefits. Globally there are various initiatives and leading trends under way discovering and implementing the lessons learned. What they all have in common is the awareness more food can be harvested vertically on one hectare of ocean. Operating ocean farms are like integrated vertical farms creating thus multiple benefits per vertical meter.

Innovator Carl Hodge – Integrated Seawater Agriculture Systems – Reforesting Coastal zones
One of the pioneers working on Integrating Seawater Agricultural Systems (ISAS) is Carl Hodge, an atmospheric physicist. During his career he concluded only the sea would offer the agricultural solutions needed to feed the growing world population. He argued when fresh water can become sea water it can also be converted back into freshwater using the same biological principles. He has developed a sophisticated integrated agricultural system using seawater to generate biological life to produce freshwater, food and provide protection for the ocean shores. He was one of the first to find a solution to solve soil salinification due to water evaporation.

His first large scale project over 1,000 acres was in Mexico near the Sea of Cortez in the 1980’s run by his Environmental Research Laboratory at Arizona University (which now has been closed). Here he proved it was and is possible to reforest a coastal zone, without permanent salinification of the existing soil. His project integrated Shrimps (Shrimp in general is fed with soy and other for the shrimp unknown protein sources), Salicornia, Fish, fresh water production and biofuel generation. In 1998 he had the opportunity to expand the knowledge towards Eretria where he has been able to reforest the coastal region, before the war in 1993 closed down their operations. His Seawater Foundation and his company SeaWater Works has shown in the five years of operations, the system integration worked. His project proved to be commercially viable as he was able to export high quality shrimp, cultivated Salicornia for its oil and reforested new seawater mangroves. In addition, he generated a new constructed wetland, inviting over numerous species of birds and other animals to the coastal zone. The mangrove and Salicornia are able to extract the sea salt and store them inside their own bodies, letting the water turn slowly into freshwater. [10]

Innovator Indonesia – Mangrove regeneration
A leading large-scale mangrove restoration program was initiated near Surabaya (Indonesia). From an ecological perspective Indonesia, ever since the islands rose from the volcanoes, it has always been surrounded by dense mangrove forests, where sweet and salt water were the cradle for the web of life. Since Indonesia is experiencing large scale mangrove deforestation the risks of flooding and coastal erosion during the storm season have been increasing rapidly. So, there was a need to find a solution for this growing social economic problem. A collaboration between a team of Engineers, Surabaya University and supported by the Indonesian government took on the task to experiment how to regenerate the mangroves applying an integrated system approach. This included adding seaweed, shrimp, rice and livestock farming into one whole ecosystem together with the local communities. This ecosystem is now starting to generate its own feedstock cycle for all species and proving much needed new jobs for the communities. Because the agroforestry system is turning to be profitable, existing shrimp and land farmers have become eager to adapt to the new system as it is becoming evident this system is more beneficial in the long run.

Innovator – Bren Smith – oceanic 3D farming
Bren Smith a former fisherman from Long Island (USA) was one of the first to adapt the 3D ocean farming system for his Thimble Island Oyster Company. Being a former fisherman himself Smith experienced first-hand the environmental issues related to mono culture salmon farming. Next to this he learned a hard lesson how the increased hurricanes made him loose his profitable oyster business near shore. So, he was in desperate need of a business model which proved to be resilient and let him diversify his cash flows.

Smith saw the opportunity of oceanic vertical farming of bringing back the biological ecosystem, while at the same time providing additional benefits for the region.  He showed through trial and error how it was possible to grow biomass vertically using impregnated millimetre-sized kelp embryos lines. And very soon also shellfish embryo (mussels and scallops) started to attach themselves naturally. On the lower levels Smith placed oysters and clams’ cages which feed on the nutrients falling from the levels above. He also discovered it was possible to produce sea salt from this system. In addition, his system also produces added value as it is capturing carbon from the ocean thanks to the kelp. Furthermore, because the whole vertical system behaves as a storm surge barrier (the whole biomass system is able to absorb the ocean energy), his way of farming is helping the local coastal infrastructure to cope with extreme weather. The interesting part of his system is that it only requires gravity and ocean water. The gravity ensures the lines hang downward and the ocean water provides the required nutrients for the system.  

Over time and learning first-hand how nature started to responded to his farming system he became the pioneer in standardising the system. Now due to the large demand of other fisherman willing to adapt his system, he created the Greenwave foundation to train others globally to help them implement the system in their own local oceans. Smith has over the years inspired a whole new generation of ocean farmers willing to do things slightly different.

So, with these innovators in mind, it is time to investigate the systemic design of the ocean reforestation and its interrelated connected and multiple benefits.

Systemic Design reforesting the Oceans

The system is divided into two parts. The upstream part deals with the 3D ocean farming and its systemic relationships with the web of life. The downstream 2nd part, explores the valorization opportunities of seaweed into a product portfolio of opportunities. 

Upstream – the Farming system

The seaweed farming starts with impregnating embryos from the nursery into the netting and hung them in the oceans to grow. The additional benefit of kelp forests is they stimulate the growth of other species. Kelp acts as a natural ecosystem nursery as a save heaven for the smallest creatures like planktons. During their growth in the ocean waters, it has been found their presence can have the following benefits:

Firstly, cleansing the water
We have learned earlier how seaweeds, like kelps, extracts its minerals from its surrounding water bodies. This concept as it turns out, also applies when the water is polluted with heavy trace minerals (like cadmium and Lead). Kelp has the ability to grow fast and has therefore a high absorption rate of minerals from water. This ability of the kelp makes it an interesting crop to extract and concentrate valuable minerals from the oceans to be used during further processing. Seaweed farms can be combined with fish farms to clean the pee and poo of the fish from the ocean water, like for example salmon breeding farms. In addition, seaweed also extracts the microplastics from the oceans, making a natural filtering system.

Secondly, feeding the world
Some seaweed species can directly be consumed by humans as food source like the Nori and Wakame species. These species contain high concentrations of minerals (for instance Iodine) and proteins. Thus, creating a high nutritious feedstock. Drying Seaweed (for example by the Sun, microwave or other dehydration techniques) makes it possible to use it as feedstock for cattle like sheep and cows, just like the Celts have been doing for centuries. The interesting part here is it has been found that the gut bacteria of these seaweed eating animals changed over time to digest the seaweed better. Various biodigesters are now starting to use seaweed as substrate using the bacterial flora of these seaweed eating animals to breakdown the seaweed more effectively (see more below when I breakdown the energy opportunities).  In addition, it has been found that these gut bacteria reduce the animal methane emissions due to burping and breathing drastically. [11]

And seaweed is becoming a feedstock for bacterial species for their metabolic pathways to produce biopolymers like PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate), as Tel Aviv University discovered. Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, learned it could use the brown seaweed, was in abundance along the Gotland shores, as feedstock for chickens. The additional benefit as it turned out these chickens were salmonella free and.

A recent new development is the creation of seaweed farms on land based on the same logic as greenhouse farming. Seaweed can grow on (artificial) sunlight, its yield can be better controlled and it requires a sort of swimming pool system using water directly from the oceans. The combination with fish, shrimps and shell fish would be logical as seaweed will be able to function as water filtering system to balance the nitrogen and phosphate concentration, as food source for shell fish and after harvest the seaweed juice would be an excellent fresh water source.

Or it can use flooded land for seaweed cultivation. As mentioned with the Indonesia project and Carl Hodge it would be beneficial for (future flooded) coastal regions to apply an integrated aquatic farming system. This would have a large impact on countries relying on landbased fish and shrimp farms, as it would offer an opportunity to eliminate environmental pollution of excess nitrogen and phosphate and maybe more interesting counterbalance the salt penetration turning these ponds into brackish water bodies.  This would benefit the African continent as they would gain access to a high abundant source of nutrients and trace minerals for their diets.

Thirdly, a new source of Medicine
The medicinal value has been recognized by the pharmaceutical industry. Seaweed provides additional probiotics due to the minerals and anti-oxidants characteristics. Seaweeds are producing various bio-chemicals as anti-microbial agents to protect itself in the water environment to fight of bacteria and fungi. And thus, eating seaweed is an excellent natural medicinal food source because of these useful bio-chemicals, which include omaga3 and other vitamins (type of nutraceuticals).[12] For instance the sulfated polysaccharide (L-fucose and sulfate ester groups) molecule Fucoidan coming from brown seaweed has anti-bacterial properties. It is able to strengthen the immune system, to name a few: it helps to decrease inflammation; it has anti-cancer properties; it is helps against leukaemia; is beneficial for cardiovascular due to its binding capabilities to other molecules; and it is able provides a positive boost for the gut/digestive system. 

Fourthly, a new and abundant all-natural fertilizer source
For a long time, farmers living near the coasts collected seaweed washed up on the beaches to use as fertilizer for their agricultural land. Now we know seaweed has high concentration of various minerals, including phosphate, potassium and nitrate it is starting to replace the artificial synthetic fertilizers as companies are starting to offer seaweed derived products like Maxicrop. Even farmers are starting to use seaweed as fertilisers, observing some interesting by effects as the bees seem to be liking the seaweed.

Fifthly, use it as construction material
Seaweed for instance Kelp are high in fibres, ideal for making construction material as the Danish have done already for centuries. It is the future source for cellulosic fibres for a large variety of applications, like paper.  More we learn in the downstream part below.

Sixthly, system integrations
It becomes interesting when the seaweed farms can be combined with offshore wind turbine fields and stranded fossil fuel ocean platforms. With an existing infrastructure in place the investment and operational costs can be lowered using the existing infrastructure. And in addition, the oceans fish populations will be able regenerate as commercial fishing is hampered by the various ocean structures. The oil platforms could be used as downstream processing plants for seaweed processing.

And the seaweed farms will be able to regenerate the oceans as marine save haven and nursery for fish, clams and many others. The case of El Hierro is showing the regenerative power of oceans when a sanctuary is imposed on a large area.

Downstream – create a BioRefinery processing system

For the more complicated processing of the seaweed a whole new biorefinery system can be created.

Seventhly, a new source of drinking water
When the seaweed sap juice is separated from the fibres interesting valorisation routes open up. Fresh seaweed can be cold pressed to produce a mineral rich liquid extract (MRLE) (up to 90% of total Volume) which can be used as human and animal mineral supplements and to create more liquid fertilizer.

Eighthly, create high value food source
The remains are the fibres (Kelp contains up to 50% of the volume of Sugars (polysaccharides)) which can be processed in various ways. The fibres can be used to produce various forms of food sources, like make flour to add in bread, pasta and cookies. Or one can use the fibres to make seaweed burgers.

Ninthly, industrial additive for glass industry
Seaweed can be burned to create an alkaline soda and potash ash highly in demand by the Glass industry, due to this high content of potassium (K).

Tenthly, food additives due to Hydrocolloids for Thickeners, Gelling and Stabilizers
The seaweed fibres contain various sugar molecules (carbohydrates) called Hydrocolloids, located in the cell wall and intercellular spaces. These Colloids are compounds which form colloidal solutions, this creates an intermediate state between a solution and suspension. It is this trick seaweed use to operate in water environments ensuring the fibres can hold sufficient fresh water in their veins while creating flexibility in the cell walls. Each seaweed has their own hydrocolloids types. The applications are liquid thickeners (increasing the viscosity), gelling agents (firmness of the substance), creating water soluble films and act as emulsifiers (stabilizing binding agents, for instance to use for ice creams to hinder the formation of large ice crystals which would render the smooth texture or for toothpaste). These emollients are also used in organic cosmetics and skin-care products.

The Red and Brown Algae produce a hydrocolloid called Agara gelatine like substance which is used as food additive and gelling agent often referred as E406.

Other Red Algae species produce a hydrocolloid called Carrageenan, contains high concentration of sulphur, which is a natural gelling agent, texture agent and emulsifying agent.

The brown Seaweeds produce a hydrocolloid called alginate. Alginate contains 50% of total sugars of the dry weight. It has also water holding, gelling, emulsifying and stabilising properties.

Eleventhly, the new Sunscreen and cosmetics
Seaweeds contain palythine (a Mycosporine-like amino acids) which is able to absorb UV radiation and has also anti-oxidant capabilities for instance sunscreen. These molecules also contain skin-soothing properties. Some seaweeds like the thallus species contain an oily substance with can be extracted to be used in massage oils, soaps and lotions, like Haeckels is doing.

Twelfthly, the future of natural biogas production
The most promising route towards energy production is using the fibres (after the water is extracted) to produce methane using a unique microbial bio-digester system. Because seaweed contains no lignin it is much easier to be broken down by seaweed loving bacteria. These bacteria were found to exist in the gut system of seaweed eating sheep, as these bacteria have evolved to fully digest the seaweed for centuries.

Interesting enough this fermentation processes has a 4 times faster degradation speed and a 2 times more higher value methane gas than comparted to regular agricultural feedstock. Because the bacteria flora is highly effective, they produce compared to the traditional digesters very little CO2 and H2 emissions. Companies like http://www.seaweedenergysolutions.com/en and Sea 6 Energy are leading the way.  This methane has been found to be of an extreme high grade that it can outcompete Shale gas and is compatible with even LNG quality. It is estimated that 100km2 of seaweed farming is able to produce over 1 Terra Joule Energy.  And it produces also a fertilizer, a by-product from the bio-digestor water residue.

In addition also the seaweed oil can be extracted for the production of biofuels.

Thirteen, start a new packaging revolution
Due to the combination of cellulose and hydrocollids molecules, seaweed is the ideal candidate for various packaging solutions. Even better, seaweed will not be competing with land-based food sources and is fully degradable when needed. To name a few: Paper can be made from the cellulose for packaging, notebooks and more. A source of yarn fibres made from the alginate. There are now a large variety of companies offering solutions based on seaweed polymers; Water bottles can use a water resistant membrane made out of alginate, calcium and water, like the edible bottle of Ooho water. A technique already in use to make fake caviar; Composable packaging like Evoware. Other companies are working with similar ideas.

Fourteen, the future of battery components
Researchers have found the very hydrocolloids have interesting properties to increase battery capacity by a factor of 10 by improving the anodes.

Fifteen, non-toxic Paint
The various pigments of the seaweeds can be used as ingredients for paint and dye.

Sixteen, Yeast extracts
Seaweeds also foster some unique aquatic yeast species with can be used for various applications.

Seventeen, inspired by natures solutions Biomimetics
The unique adaptation of seaweed is inspiring engineers to design new technological solutions. The way seaweeds attach themselves to the rocks which has inspired to created similar adhesives products. Fucoidan is an inspiration to be used as a slippery anti-bacterial surface. Various energy generators solutions have been inspired by how seaweed moves by the ocean current. And I expect more innovations are coming soon!

Realism & Reflections

During my travels in 2014 through Sweden I visited Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, where I first learned about the local use of seaweed as feedstock for chickens for the additional benefit of having no salmonella contamination.  It struck me years later while preparing for this case, how visionary the Gotland community already was in using seaweed as a feedstock source. The implications of seaweed have far reached systemic impacts along a large range of applications. As this case will prove, it is possible to feed the growing world population.

It has taken over 30 years since the first scientists and entrepreneurs showed the way how reforestation of our oceans can provide economic and ecologic sense. As always, this transition has to deal with changing the existing system practice by substituting it with a new system which is better and more profitable. A growing number of entrepreneurs are working from the bottom up and are changing the system step by step. When you look closely you see the transition and applications are starting to accelerate. Each step is lowering the market entry boundaries and expanding the valorisation opportunities due to the emerging new value chain.

The biggest challenge the seaweed economy faces is the creation of a new value chain, which at the moment is still competing with the existing supply chain. With time the technology standardisation and knowledge build-up increase the economics will slowly start moving forward. With increasing demand for seaweed, we can start reforesting our oceans and bring back biodiversity, while restoring the oceans water bodies again.

When the industry puts vertical ocean farming as their objective, it is possible to avoid the mono culture pitfalls of the past. For seaweed farms the water depth might be defining whether the aquatic system allows for mono-culture farming. Although it is already proven aquatic vertical farming will provide the highest benefits, it is expected some farmers will try to promote mono-cultural farming increasing the presence of algicides (pesticides for algae’s). So, there is still a long way to go for the industry to go clean and just do what is best for the whole spaceship. These cases have shown there is an emerging new value chain coming and they require the backup of all of us to become a reality.

Other inspiring cases
This case I dedicate to all the pioneers who persisted it could be done, working against all the odd of the scientific community and the financing challenges they had to face. They have been proven right and even investors are starting to see the financial benefits of pursuing a regenerative forestry concept because it is just smart business.

Bonaire, is showing how reforestation of the coral reefs is implemented. Instead of seaweed the corals are restored creating a very similar cascading effect through its ecosystem.

Jordan, is base for the Saharaforest project (based in Olso) is underway to use the desert water and ocean waters to reforest the desert.

Israel, country where there is a shortage of land and water, they are working on letting the sea move inwards to create a sustainable integrated aquatic system for culture of fish, seaweed and abalone – Israel

Zanzibar has a long history with seaweed farming. For some decades a long standing and leading seaweed project is showing it is possible to provide jobs and reforestation of the oceans for a fair price. The project is one of the flagships of the UNCTAD and African development.  

China is turning to naturally occurring salt loving rice to cope with the increase soil salinity.

Globally, the seawater greenhouse system is showing it possible to use the salty water through a natural evaporation process to irrigate greenhouses.

My gratitude goes out to

It has been a great honour to have had the pleasure of learning of the pioneering work lead by Joost Wouters (The Seaweed Company) and Marco van Duijvenvoorde (Green Marine Farming). They have both been so kind to share their vision and systemic insights of how the seaweed value chain of the future could look like.

Other interesting resources


The coming green wave ocean farming to fight climate change

Great overview Article from Niclas Paul Seaweed aquaculture: an innovation platform for the Blue Economy

Nice overview from MIT

This one from Gizmodo

Great generic overview article from NOAA

Why seaweed is our alley against climate change 1

Why seaweed is our alley against climate change 2

International Seaweed Association

Status of seaweed culture FAO

South Korea seaweed industry

Seaweed Ireland

Alaska seaweed farming

European Seaweed farming

Dutch Seaweed farming

Kelp Farming Manual A Guide to the Processes, Techniques, and Equipment for Farming Kelp in New England Waters

Swedish progress

Carl Hodges – Greening of Eritrea

Carl Hodges: Eritrea project

Carl Hodges Seawater Foundation and Integrated Seawater Farming

Carl Hodges –Article in San Francisco Gate

Ben Smith – Article on EcoWatch

Ben Smith – Article on Medium

Biorefinery overview by TNO/ECN

Scottish Seaweed system

Methane production – Indian Startup

Methane production – Statoil

Methane production – Seaweed Energy Solutions

Methane production – Seagas

[1] They have extreme smart adhesives in order to keep themselves attached to the rocks.

[2] http://www1.lsbu.ac.uk/water/water_anomalies.html

[3] https://www.fondriest.com/environmental-measurements/parameters/water-quality/water-temperature/

[4] Actually, the first microbes where using methane, carbon dioxide, sulphur and nitrate among others for their metabolism. With the use of photons, it become possible to access a higher energy source enabling splitting carbon dioxide into carbon and oxygen to create complicated sugars as new building blocks.

[5] Some bacteria and fungi of these times are still alive today in the gut system of animals

[6] The seaweed extracts the carbon dioxide from the water and thus reducing the CO2 concentration, thus slowing down acidification.

[7] One researcher from the Netherlands made a calculation that only 180,000 square kilometres would be enough to feed the global population and could be able to lower the pH 0.1 when applied in the Mediterranean sea [https://phys.org/news/2010-12-seaweed-acidification.html]

[8] For humans the rising water temperature is causing problems for ships as the cooling water for the engines are becoming too warm to function as cooling fluid.

[9] This yield per hectare is so much higher, while genetically modified rice is still not living up to its promise.

[10] Also, seagrass have the potential do the same [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seagrass]

[11] Although one can argue the current animal feedstock is unnatural to what their original microbial flora would have been. Especially the microbial flora of cows have been changed by humans in order to digest high protein based feedstock unnatural to cows, like soya, maize and others.  

[12] The seaweeds health benefits therapy is called Algotherapy

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