Can algae save the world?

“The human race must make use of the vast ocean sea, a new era for the mariculture of seaweed for biomass wseaweedill definitely come, sooner or later”                           – Tseng (Chinese oceanographer)

The dangers posed by the fuel and environmental crises threaten climate stability and geopolitical security and resource futures. Excessive exploitation of dwindling supplies of fossil fuel, combined with growing population and growing lifestyle expectations, means that society is now facing shortage of the very resources that built and maintain it and the environment that it depends on. One potential and slightly wacky solution to the energy and environment crises that humanity faces is macro-algae, more commonly known as seaweed.

This plentiful resource has been used around the British Isles for at least 4000 years. It was first collected as a foodstuff, then a fertiliser, due to its ability to concentrate minerals and trace elements from the sea. From the 17th century, seaweed found multiple industrial uses, including the glass and soap industries. By the 19th century seaweed-derived products were used in food, cosmetic, medical and pharmaceutical products. Using seaweed for fuel also has a long history but the first extraction of a biofuel from seaweed was achieved during US experiments in the 1970s: the same decade as the first World Climate Conference which identified the rising sea levels and changing climate which are now so familiar.

Macro-algae today has been heralded as a “silver bullet” with some questioning “can algae save the world” for three key reasons as it provides:

  • A plentiful, renewable energy source with the potential to reduce fuel insecurity in the future.
  • A carbon neutral, green energy source that does not contribute to environmental degradation.
  • A marine-grown energy crop that does not compete for land with agricultural crops and consequently does not contribute to the food vs. fuel crisis.

So seaweed stands in contrast to the first generation of biofuels that are associated with land-grabs and deforestation and the second generation (grown from non-food crops which can be grown on land not fit for food crops) as it has significantly higher yields. Macro-algae constitutes a new category, known as advanced biofuels: the third generation.

This new generation fuel has huge potential for exploitation in the United Kingdom and around the world. Most ocean waters are the perfect environments for macro-algae growth and, with tonnes of this plentiful resource already harvested from the wild each year, the opportunity for large-scale marine cultivation is undeniable. Furthermore, cultivation of seaweed is thought to benefit marine ecosystems by providing hatcheries for fish, removing excess metals and nutrients from the sea and being an efficient carbon sequestration crop. Macro-algae could provide a renewable, sustainable source of fuel and multiple higher value products that could be extracted through the refining process to be used in medicines, cosmetics and other industries. The indirect effects of such a process include a healthier marine environment, an improved rural economy and a cleaner environmental conscience. With such potential it is surprising that this technology, discovered in the 1970s, has progressed little from a research stage.

Macro-algal commercialisation progress faces technical, political/social and economic barriers. Technical issues consist of unanswered questions in licencing, ecology, farming and biorefining. These issues often require creative solutions to allow the industry to produce a higher volume, at a lower cost, securing a higher profit. These technicalities can be solved through research and development. The key problem uniting these first three barriers is cost; they need to become economically efficient and require political funding and market regulation to be so. This requires subsidies of which there is a distinctive lack of; there are also no policies to regulate the market favourably for renewable technologies such as macro-algae. Without political support, which in turn relies on societal support, the industry will struggle to overcome the technical barriers and become economically feasible. In a capitalist world, without a promise of profit the industry has no future at all.

Overall, the macro-algal industry faces an interrelated web of hurdles to overcome. But current progress is positive. Macro-algae promises a sustainable source of so many products with few associative negatives, and is therefore receiving increasing academic and industrial attention from key institutions. The industry is already blossoming in the Far East, and the UK government is considering a pilot study to assist macro-algae’s future development. At present, the predictions of timescales to commercialisation are that food from wild-harvest will be exploited for the next five to ten years, and as the industry progresses and saturates animal feed and higher value oil-markets in chemicals, it could grow to a biofuel industry within the next 20 years. It is clear that much could be done to aid the industry’s progress along these timescales, including political and societal support to improve the industry’s economic feasibility and allow it to overcome its technical barriers in the short-term.

Therefore macro-algae does have a future but to the answer to the question so often posed, will algae save the world? the answer is no. Humanity faces a multi-faceted crisis, the solution of which must also be multi-faceted. Instead, in response to the question “can macro-algae constitute one face of the solution?” the answer is yes. It must not be seen as a silver bullet and it must not be seen as an alternative to real lifestyle change and sacrifice, but it can be seen as a stepping-stone towards a future of sustainability. The real question now is how do we overcome the barriers to realise it?

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