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Seaweed: Fuel and Food of the Future

Oct 09, 2014 05:14 PM EDT

Seaweed may be the root of the damaging algae bloom problem happening in some states, but scientists are realizing its untapped potential as a source of food and fuel for the future, new research describes.

"The fact is that algae can absorb nitrogen from the water as effectively as a wastewater treatment plant," Fredrik Gröndahl, a KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher, said in a statement.

Certain species of algae, commonly known as seaweed, tend to release a cyanotoxin when they bloom that can be harmful to humans and sea-life in high enough concentrations - a problem currently being seen in Ohio's Lake Erie.

"But, in our research, we turn the argument on its head and see algae as a resource," added Gröndahl. "We collect excess algae along the coasts and cultivate new algae out at sea."

Already, seaweed is getting scooped up from the Baltic Sea, along Sweden's southern coast, in order to be converted to biogas. One Swedish city specificially, Trelleborg, estimates that its beaches are home to algae that is equivalent to the energy from 2.8 million liters of diesel fuel.

Oceans make up about 75 percent of Earth's surface, and under the surface is untapped land that can be used to house algae "seafarms." Currently, the world uses 40 percent of the production from land-based ecosystems compared to just one percent of the seas' ecosystems. And this small percentage isn't even used for energy production, but rather mostly for the fishing industry, which trawls the ocean floor extensively.

"We really need new solutions, such as harvesting the excess algae for fuel and cultivating new, pure algae for special products and foodstuffs," Gröndahl said.

Not to mention that seaweed contains vitamins, amino acids and minerals, including iron, making it beneficial for food consumption as well. So not only can you eat seaweed, but it can potentially solve the world's current fossil fuel problem, which is contributing to the Earth's greenhouse gas effect and exacerbating climate change.

"What's more, we're also acting to help the environment," the researcher said. "Partly, when we make use of the excess algae which otherwise contribute to the excess fertilization of water bodies and partly when we cultivate algae that actually absorb nitrogen and phosphorus from the sea."

Gröndahl is currently heading what is called the Seafarm project, which aims to create underwater algae farms for fuel and food purposes. The algae grow on ropes and after six months time are harvested and processed on land through biorefining processes. While there are concerns that so much seaweed - about five acres worth to start - could hypothetically influence movements in the water and the marine environment, Gröndahl is confident in the project's success.

"In 15 years time, we will have many large algae cultivations along our coasts; and Seafarm will have contributed to the creation of a new industry," he said.

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