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An ocean of opportunities around seaweed uses

Published on 07 June 2023 Read 25 min

Seaweed are a diverse group of photosynthetic organisms that play a crucial role in producing oxygen, capturing carbon dioxide, and nourishing marine ecosystems. They are known for their high productivity rate and ability to produce a wide range of valuable compounds through photosynthesis. Naturally abundant in our sea environment and easy to produce, algae are gaining popularity as next-generation resources with the potential to address urgent industrial and agricultural demands, and reduce our dependance towards fossil based resources. In this article, Alcimed will explore the unique properties of seaweed and their diverse applications.

Why use algae in industry?

With a high productivity and low carbon footprint, algae are a key resource in our journey towards alternatives to fossil based resources

Algae present a high productivity rate, as they can grow much faster than traditional crops, and can produce more biomass per unit area. Naturally abundant in our sea environment, they offer a cost-effective, local, natural resource versus traditional resources for industrials, that also has its role in preserving biodiversity. In addition, seaweed can be grown with a mitigated carbon footprint, in areas that are unsuitable for traditional agriculture, such as deserts or wastewater treatment facilities. On top of leveraging traditionally unused lands, they can therefore help reduce the competition for land use.

Due to their diverse biochemical composition and properties, algae can be used for a wide range of applications.

Algae contain bioactive compounds that have shown potential therapeutic properties. They can be used as a natural source of color, texture, and moisture, but also as preservative, as they contain natural antioxidants. They are also highly nutritious, as they are rich in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, and they have a high lipids and polysaccharides unique composition that can be leveraged. Finally, they have the ability to capture and use CO2, nitrogen, and phosphorous, making them a promising tool for numerous sustainable applications.

5 examples of seaweed uses in industry

Application n°1: algae as an ingredient in the food and cosmetics industries

In the food, beverage and cosmetics sectors, producers use seaweed for its health benefits and interesting nutritional profile, as well as for its functional and preservative properties. They can replace traditional food or cosmetic additives, with sustainable alternatives such as emulsifiers, moisturizer and thickeners. On top of replacing, they can also develop the functional properties of such products, by improving their texture and stability, or even by adding unique flavor profiles (making them a promising ingredients for more indulgent plant-based products). Their high nutritional content and health benefits make them a key ingredients of functional foods and cosmetics with diverse health benefits. An interesting example of these potential benefits lie with the development by Givaudan of Sensityl™ an active cosmetic ingredient, originating from microalgae, which positively influences consumers’ mood and skin health. Seaweed can also be employed as natural fertilizers because they are rich in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium and help improve soil structure, increase water retention, and enhance the growth and yield of crops

Application n°2: the health benefits of seaweed are also exploited in the pharmaceutical industry

Microalgae possess the ability to generate biologically active substances, including antibiotics, hormones and other compounds with pharmaceutical and therapeutic benefits, including for instance antibacterial and anti‑inflammatory activities. In addition, their unique properties make them a platform of interest for recombinant proteins, making them a potentially valuable tool for the development of new therapeutics leveraging molecular farming.

Application n°3: high lipid content makes algae a promising source of biofuels

They can be processed into various forms of biofuels such as biodiesel, bioethanol, and biogas, without competing with food crops.

Application n°4: the high polysaccharide content of seaweed makes it a promising candidate for replacing petroleum-based packaging materials

These polysaccharides can be extracted and used as a natural alternative to synthetic polymers, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. In addition, seaweed’s ability to capture carbon dioxide during growth presents a potentially carbon-neutral source, making them a favorable material for a more eco-friendly future. Furthermore, algae-based materials have desirable properties for the packaging industry, such as being highly tailorable, having gelling and thickening properties that can be used as natural binders or coatings. They are biodegradable and do not release harmful chemicals when breaking down in the environment. Many other opportunities arise, as algae-based packaging materials have been found to have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, which can potentially help extend the shelf life of packaged food and cosmetic products. Some companies are also working on edible seaweed based packaging.

Learn more about the challenges of sustainable packaging >

Application n°5: seaweed can be used for bioremediation and carbon capture

Their ability to absorb and utilize carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorus from the environment. Seaweed can remove nutrients and pollutants from wastewater, and they can be used in the treatment of agricultural and industrial waste. Microalgae also be used in carbon capture technology by utilizing their photosynthetic abilities to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in biomass or other forms. This can help to mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

What are the challenges involved in making these applications a reality?

The seaweed industry is constantly evolving to address the challenges facing algae-based products and to develop potential solutions. As technology and research continue to advance, we can expect to see even more innovations and breakthroughs in this field.

Reducing the cost of using algae

Seaweed-based alternatives are often more expensive, which can limit their market potential. To reduce costs, companies are optimizing the production process, using wastewater as a nutrient source, and advancing technology to lower the cost of harvesting and processing.

Finding the infrastructure and resources for large-scale production

Producing seaweed on a large scale can be challenging, as it requires significant infrastructure and resources. Companies are exploring new cultivation methods, developing closed-loop systems and partnerships with larger corporations to replicate and scale up production.

Avoiding negative impacts on the ecosystem

If not correctly managed, algae blooms can actually have a negative impact on the ecosystem, causing oxygen depletion and harmful effects on aquatic life. To mitigate these impacts, researchers are developing new strains of seaweed, exploring seaweed for wastewater treatment, and improving water resource management.

Know and comply with regulations on seaweed uses

The use of seaweed for food and pharmaceuticals is subject to regulatory approval, which can be a time-consuming and expensive process. Industry groups are educating policymakers, developing streamlined approval processes, and ensuring compliance with regulations.

Seaweeds can be leveraged in numerous applications, from food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals to biofuels and bioplastics. Thanks to their diverse biochemical composition and properties, they have the potential to provide sustainable solutions to many of the challenges we face today, while reducing the reliance on non-renewable resources. With continued research and development, seaweed uses as a renewable resource can help pave the way towards a more sustainable future.

In this context, Alcimed believes that the potential of seaweed is vast and offers exciting opportunities for innovation towards a more sustainable future. Alcimed can help you better understand the opportunities and technologies related to seaweed uses in your business. Don’t hesitate to contact our team!

About the author, 

Ondine, Consultant in Alcimed’s Healthcare team in Switzerland

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