Seaweed is often used to wrap sushi or flavor soups. It has a lot more potential than that, both in food and in many products such as cosmetics and textiles.
Seaweed is usually grown using nets or ropes suspended in the sea, but modern techniques make large-scale cultivation nearly impossible. Shrikumar Suryanarayan is the co-founder and CEO at Sea6 Energy in Bangalore and an ex-head of research and development for Biocon, an Indian pharmaceutical firm that specializes in biologically-sourced medicine. Ocean farming is now in its “stone age.” It’s similar to using a trowel with a pick to cultivate the land.
Sea6 Energy was founded in 2010 and is a company that aims to automate ocean farming. Its “Sea Combine” automated catamaran harvests and replants seaweeds in the ocean.
The machine moves back and forth among seaweed lines, harvesting fully grown plants and replacing them with newer lines.
The prototype is currently being used at the company’s seaweed farm off Indonesia. Suryanarayan said that the tradition of seaweed farming in the Southeast Asian country involves locals tying seaweed pieces to ropes and then hauling them out to sea. Then, they harvest the lines manually. The company plans to expand its deployment of Sea Combines as the technology improves and the market grows, even in India.
According to Fortune Business Insights, the market research firm Fortune Business Insights, while the global seaweed market doubled in size between 2005-2015 and produced 33 million tonnes in 2018, high-cost production is expected to slow market growth.
Suryanarayan says that seaweed’s price restricts its potential use. In the current market, seaweed is often not economically feasible to be used for high-priced food purposes.
Suryanarayan believes the Sea Combine will reduce costs and make seaweed more affordable, which will allow it to be used more widely. He believes that this will not affect local livelihoods as village cooperatives can lease the machinery to allow them to farm in larger areas.
Suryanarayan says that the Sea Combine is only a “tool” in Sea6 Energy’s larger operation. Suryanarayan says that the company has raised $20 million in funding and currently uses seaweed harvested from the machine to make small-scale agricultural fertilizer and animal feed.
Fuel and food
Suryanarayan acknowledges that it has been a slow process for the company due to the lack of investment during its early years. However, he believes the company is now at an “inflection” point, as technology has been developed and foundations laid. There’s a lot of interest in seaweed’s potential to reduce climate change.
The next step for the company is to increase its range of seaweed-based products. It will start producing bioplastics in the next three to four years.
Since the beginning, seaweed has been promoted as a biodegradable option to plastic. The EU funded research into the topic over the past decade. Nota, a London-based startup, has used seaweed to make sustainable packaging for sauces and drinks. Sea6 Energy is currently developing its biodegradable film to replace plastic and paper bags.
The company’s most ambitious ambition is to turn seaweed into biofuel. This will help India reduce its dependence on crude oil. Suryanarayan acknowledges that although it is technically possible, there are still many steps to take before it becomes commercially viable.
Vincent Doumeizel is the director of the Food Programme at Lloyd’s Register Foundation. This charity supports research and innovation and is also a senior advisor at United Nations Global Compact, the UN’s corporate sustainability initiative. He said, “We would need many hectares of seaweed to make a few gallons of oil.” Producing seaweed for biofuel to me is similar to using gold for gravel.
Doumeizel believes Sea6 Energy should instead focus on areas where seaweed has the potential to make a difference. Seaweed-enriched cattle feed can reduce bovine methane emissions because it contains compounds that prevent microbes from producing the gas in cows’ guts. Bioplastics could also help to decarbonize the environment. The nutritious plants could be used to feed the growing world population.
Doumeizel says that industry investment must be accelerated, and he also welcomes the efforts made by companies to develop technology for industrial-scale cultivation.
Sea6 Energy isn’t the only one to do this. Norwegian company Seaweed Solutions created the “Seaweed Carrier,” which is a sheet-like structure that can grow large quantities of kelp in deep waters. AtSeaNova, based in Belgium, has also developed a floating harvesting and seeding machine.
Suryanarayan says that sea agriculture is one way to increase the sustainability of our planet. “If we can demonstrate that it is financially viable, our job and our journey will be successful.”