Seaweed is an underutilised and under-cultivated commodity, but offers huge potential for a variety of products, according to a new paper from PML researchers.
With a growth in the seaweed market in the South West of England, the researchers assessed local seaweed species for their potential to be used as commercial products at many different levels. Traditionally, seaweed has been used across the world as both a food product and fertiliser, but this study shows the wider possibilities for these incredibly versatile marine algae within the UK market and further afield.
Focusing on both native and invasive species found around the coast of South West England, scientists from PML, University of Plymouth, University of Bristol, University of Bath, Algaecytes, Protein Technologies Ltd., Biorganix Mexicana, S.A. de C.V., and University of Exeter looked at characteristics and suitability for uses through a novel "biorefinery" pipeline, in which multiple components can be separated out and utilised. With components in seaweed including various pigments, carbohydrates, fats, proteins and other metabolites, commercial uses are incredibly diverse, with the possibility of many products being created through a single pipeline process.
These products range from biofuel, through bioactive fertilisers, to high-value pharmaceutical products. Seaweed's potential as a food source offers opportunities, particularly with regards to its future appeal for the Western market, where it is still lacking in popularity, and with the possibility of producing specific extracts, such as Omega 3. There may also be the potential for seaweeds to fuel the replacement of synthetically manufactured compounds often derived from petroleum oils.
Currently, around 95% of the 2.5 million tons of seaweed biomass harvested annually is produced in Asia, with the total market worth $5.6bn. With its extensive coastline and temperate waters, the UK is ideal for high-value seaweed production, which could be carried out alongside other marine activities such as windfarms.
Individually, the various products that can be created from seaweed could be difficult to use commercially, but by using this biorefinery approach, potential exists for a burgeoning seaweed-based bio-economy to develop in areas such as the South West UK. With several trials for seaweed cultivation, and a focus on new seaweed businesses across the South West, the area is primed to take advantage of this developing sector.
Dr Tracey Beacham, PML Algal Molecular Biologist and lead author, said: "Our extensive coastline makes the UK an ideal environment for seaweed production, both farmed and wild harvest, and with the diverse range of products that can be isolated from them, it’s great to see the expanding interest in this growth industry."
Isobel Cole, the joint lead author who worked on the research whilst an undergraduate student at the University of Plymouth, said: “Having the opportunity to be an author on a publication as an undergraduate has been invaluable and provided me with many unique opportunities. These have led to me securing a placement with the Microbial Biofuels Group at the University of Exeter and I hope it will lead to a PhD and a career in research and development.”