What can we do with Seaweed?

Seaweed and algae are related to each other. They are both plants, and both live in the ocean. Seaweed is multicellular and large, while algae is often microscopic and sometimes made of single celled organisms. In both cases, these water plants grow much faster than their counterparts on land, and more of what grows is actually usable and valuable. Algae grows on average up to ten times faster than plants on land, and produces ten times more biomass for the surface area.

But what can we really produce with seaweed and algae? Does it really have many uses for modern society? Can we make food, or other things out of it? As it turns out, there is a LOT that we can do with plant life in the ocean!

Seaweed can be used in a lot of recipes, you might be familiar with a few of them.

A type of seaweed called Nori is used in sushi, a popular food originating from Japan.

When some species of red algae are ground up into a paste and dried they can form into agar. Agar is a firm jello-like substance somewhat like a cross between butter and cold cream cheese in consistency. It can be mixed with many different ingredients to add flavor and is used to add texture to many desert foods around the world.

Kombucha is a drink popular in California that includes seaweed as a main ingredient.

Seaweed Butter is like conventional butter that has a large amount of chopped seaweed added to enhance the flavor and consistency, as well as thicken the butter.

Enselodang Lato is a seaweed based salad popular in the Philippines.

Many species of seaweeds are very high in protein and can be used to make seaweed jerky.

Many other recipes exist as well including Seaweed Pasta, dried Kimchi, and Furikake. Asia is the origin point of most of the world’s Seaweed recipes.

Spirulina is an algae that originates from Lake Texcoco in ancient Aztec civilization. It is one of the fastest growing, freshwater, non-toxic algae in the world. It can be used to produce large amounts of food at very low cost. In some setups, Spirulina production can be much lower cost than either wheat or rice. While it is freshwater loving, some types of saltwater algae exhibit similar properties.

Spirulina is a type of cyanobacteria — often referred to as blue-green algae — that is incredibly healthy. It may improve your levels of blood lipids, suppress oxidation, reduce blood pressure and lower blood sugar. While more research is needed before any strong claims can be made, spirulina may be one of the few superfoods worthy of the title.

Seaweed is commonly used in cosmetics. Apart from its ultra-hydrating and humectant qualities, seaweed also boasts anti-aging and anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s packed with amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, making it a nutrient-dense snack and skin care ingredient. Natural antibacterial properties make it an ideal ingredient for acne, rosacea, and sensitive skin. Seaweed, kelp, and algae are all-natural sources of skin-loving vitamins and minerals. That’s why you’ll see them in hundreds of skin care formulas.

Because of how fast it can grow, seaweed and algae are both used in the production of animal feed, as a cheap alternative to some land based plants. Some types of seaweed are used as a dietary supplement for cows to keep them healthy, while others are used as chicken feed.

The Philippines is the world’s third largest producer of seaweed, following China and Indonesia (FAO, 2018). Seaweed is the top commodity produced by the aquaculture fisheries sub-sector with a total production of 1.49 million metric tons (64 (Philippine Fisheries Profile, 2019). Among the major seaweed-producing regions are Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), MiMaRoPa, and Zamboanga Peninsula (Philippine Fisheries Profile, 2019). Seaweed exports in the Philippines reach between $200 and $250 million per year. As is the case with much of the $14 billion dollar global seaweed market, much of this is sold to neighboring countries in Asia. Many new seaweed processing facilities have been erected in places like Indonesia and India in recent years, as the seaweed market is set to grow at an average rate of about 10.8% per year until 2028. This puts it among the fastest growing agricultural markets in the world.

Much effort has been put in past decades towards producing biofuels from seaweed. Considering that most fossil fuels we burn today comes from the remains of ancient seaweed which grew during the times of the dinosaurs, these efforts make sense. If ancient seaweed produced all of our oil, then why can’t modern seaweed produce our oil just as well, and in a more sustainable manner? It seems like it would be a lot easier to grow it, than to suck it out of the ground, and in addition, since it would extract carbon from the atmosphere to make the oil in the first place, it would be completely carbon neutral. Seaweed is highly suitable for biofuel. Between 85% and 90% of seaweed is water, which means it is very suitable for biofuel-making methods like anaerobic digestion to make biogas and fermentation to make ethanol. In addition, many seaweed species, like sugar kelp, have high carbohydrate and low lignin content that is perfect for making bioethanol. It is one of the most efficient species, especially in absorbing nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. Because seaweed grows very fast, it can absorb a lot of CO2, in fact up to 66 tonnes of CO2 per hectare, which can help tackle ocean acidification.

Finally, if all of this were not enough, a new use for algae that has just started recently is in the plastics industry. Since we know that we can produce all of the same fuel products we get from oil out of algae, why not plastic? Recent efforts have seen scientists try to branch out the useful products we can get from algae, to make this green organism more useful to modern industry, and today, we now know that plastics can be made from algae byproducts that are approaching cost effectiveness, and best of all, they are completely biodegradable.

Algae and Seaweed cultivation are both associated with smaller, more rapidly growing economies. But as the benefits of these salt loving plants becomes more apparent, and demand increases in developed countries, the market for seaweed is poised to grow significantly in coming decades.

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