A matter of life and algae: exploring the potential of seaweed

Professor Stanley will talk about the benefits of algae © SAMS

Seaweed has long been a staple of Scotland, used not just for food but also as fertiliser, and now algae could hold the key for scientific innovation, carbon capture and creating jobs in coastal communities.

Next week a leading marine science researcher will give a free talk shedding light on the possibilities and benefits of algae.

Professor Michele Stanley will discuss how algae is being used in everything from energy production to waste treatment.

As the associate director of science, enterprise and innovation at the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS), Professor Stanley is an international expert in blue biotechnology – a field that aims to address issues around food and energy security, water availability, ageing populations, increasing carbon dioxide levels and climate change.

A history of seaweed

Seaweed has a long history in Scotland. Seaweed harvest and cultivation once sustained communities on the west coast and the Highlands and Islands.

At one time, the industry was worth the equivalent of 7.5 million pounds to the Hebrides alone.

Soda and potash were important chemicals in the soap and glass industry and were widely used for linen bleaching.

For this purpose it had to be dried out and carefully burned in a kelp pit, trench or kiln. The resulting kelp was an oily bluish substance which was shipped away to factories in the Lowlands.

From making sure a pint of beer keeps its head to growing healthy plants, seaweed has many uses.

In 1893 the English chemist Edward Curtis Stamford, a specialist in iodine extraction, isolated alginate from seaweed. In the food industry, alginates serve to stabilise meringues and ice cream, improve the head on beer and allow fast-setting in puddings. They also perform similar roles in the cosmetic, medical, paint and other industries.

Kelp was a crucial livelihood, especially in the Outer Hebrides, but after 1822 the duty payable on cheaper, imported kelp was removed, and the Scottish industry largely collapsed.

This brought hardship in places like Lewis, Benbecula and South Uist, already reeling from the Clearances.

Thanks to an exclusive diet of seaweed, a flock of rare sheep on North Ronaldsay could be on the front-line of climate solutions after recent research revealed that animals enjoying a diet that includes algae produce less methane than those eating grain-based animal feed or grass.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that, while it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, is more dangerous to the climate due to how effectively it absorbs heat. It is estimated about 25% of global warming is produced by methane.

Increasing interest in algae and seaweed

Globally, aquaculture is a huge industry but Scotland’s once thriving trade has been overshadowed by Southeast Asia, who now farm around 95% of the world’s production.

But its fortunes could be on the rise with plans for a chain of “community owned” seaweed farms helping revitalise rural west coast areas. Already around 20 community groups stretching from Islay to Lochinver have expressed an interest.

The Hebridean Seaweed Company (HSC) in Stornoway is Britain’s largest seaweed processor. They even supply algae for the sets of blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars.

There have been recent rows over the planned mechanical harvesting of kelp along the west coast with Sir David Attenborough saying it is “absolutely imperative that we protect our kelp forests.”

But HSC does not harvest kelp but Ascophyllum nodosum which is completely sustainable and organic.

Oban-based Oceanium is developing biopackaging material made from Scottish kelp. They say this could become a biodegradable alternative to food packing plastic.

Professor Stanley said: “Over the last 15 years there has been an increased interest in algae, both microalgae and seaweeds. This was initially driven by the search for biomass for bioenergy production, but now includes activities such as the treatment of waste and the production of high value compounds as well.

“My lecture will explore why algae are so important, what bananas can teach us about seaweed cultivation and will also offer personal insights into why you never quite end up doing what you thought you would in science!”

Professor Stanley’s lecture, ‘A matter of life and algae’, will take place on Thursday 20th February. Attendees can also join by video conference. To find out more, visit www.uhi.ac.uk/events

This article was originally published as The power of seaweed explored as Scotland’s industry expands at The Herald Scotland on 12/02/2020.

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