North Sea seaweed projects closer to reality
Recently the Dutch government decided to subsidise four seaweed projects. This is an important step forwards in cultivating this new form of biomass in the North Sea. ECN is participating in two of these projects. Researchers from Biomass, Coal and Environmental Research have been exploring ways of extracting valuable raw materials and energy from this marine agricultural product.
Seaweed cultivation is a fast-growing sector around the world. In China and Japan, seaweed is being grown on an ever-increasing scale and being converted into valuable ingredients for food production. From toothpaste to ice cream (carrageenan) and from Petri dish (agar) to dentistry form-making material (alginate), more and more products are being improved using ingredients made from seaweed. And for some time now seaweed has been seen as a potential raw material for the production of biofuel.
In 2005 ECN worked together with a number of other parties (see report Bio-Offshore) to lay the foundation for possible seaweed cultivation in the North Sea. “In 2009 we started research in a long-term EOS project (Seaweed Biorefinery) into the routes for converting seaweed into energy and raw materials”, explains Jip Lenstra enthusiastically. “And now ECN is participating in two SBIR projects to actually realise the cultivation of seaweed in the North Sea.” SBIR is a programme of the Dutch government aimed at specifically stimulating small businesses to develop certain technologies, in this case ways of cultivating seaweed.
Developing cultivation systems
Seaweed is a type of macroalgae; it grows much faster than a normal plant. The North Sea is home to types of seaweed which attach themselves to structures such as ropes and nets. So a cultivation system can be made by putting out ropes or nets with seaweed spores. Suitable areas for this include offshore wind parks, because sailing is restricted there, although there is also space close to the coast, in the tidal channels of Zeeland and in the Wadden Sea.
ECN feels that seaweed is particularly valuable because it does not compete with food production. However, further development is needed to make the cultivation, harvest and conversion into products cost effective. ECN is involved in this. Feasibility studies are being carried out until after the summer of 2010. This will be followed by inviting tenders for one or two demonstration projects in which seaweed will be cultivated on a small scale, followed by the real work in which the Netherlands can show what it is good at: offshore and agriculture.
Contact: Jip Lenstra