Partnering with Industry

Jessica Adams was awarded a returning fellowship grant by The Low Carbon Energy and Environment Network Wales which gave her the space to pursue collaboration with an up-and-coming industry.

Jessica was already making great headway through her research into feedstocks at Aberystwyth University, but being granted a returning fellowship from the Low Carbon Energy and Environment Network Wales enabled her to renew her passion for the myriad applications of seaweed!

Why seaweed? This huge group of organisms is more varied that the casual term ‘seaweed’ would give them credit for. Consider that there are three times more known species of ‘seaweed’ than the number of plant species found living around the whole of Britain.

Within this great variety there are three broad types of seaweed, or algae, with difference compositions that confer different properties on those species. There are brown seaweeds, which contain alginate, used in many of the products we use daily from stabilisers and thickeners in food, to additives in paper and textiles. The red seaweeds, contain carrageenan which is also used in the food industry as a thickening agent as well as to produce agar plates used for scientific and medical study. The green algae are less used than the reds and browns, but contain different compounds again such as ulvan. All seaweeds have low fats, some protein, dietary fibre and take up micronutrients from the environment around them making them a healthy addition to diets.

Seaweeds have roles in a number of other areas as well. For example, scientists are researching a certain tropical red seaweed, which when included in the diets of sheep and cattle has been shown to reduce methane emissions by these animals by up to 80% – a phenomenon which could have a massive influence on the carbon footprint of the farming industry.

The carbon naturally locked-up by seaweed is significant too. As algae grow, like trees, they capture and store carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. As bits of the seaweed break off or are naturally released some of these parts reach the deep ocean where they will remain for over 100 years. The carbon they held in their composition is, at this point, considered sequestered. An average of 11% of the algae are turned into a carbon store in this way. If more, large seaweed farms were established and deep ocean sequestration (sinking) were enhanced, this could also significantly reduce the quantity of carbon dioxide emissions we release each year.

Jessica’s research is aimed at taking the humble seaweed and exploring its use in a wide range of other, usually higher value products.

“Seaweed farming is a growing sector around the world, with the main application as a food source and additive, but with a great deal of potential in other areas. I am often working in collaboration with companies to help them scale up their production using our pilot-scale biorefinery, enabling the UK seaweed industry to increase in viability.”

Importantly, if seaweed cultivation in the UK and Europe can become financially viable, the wild algae can be left to fulfil their important niche in the oceans and coastal zones, including sequestering carbon as an ally against climate change; protecting our coastlines; providing rich habitats for young fish and other animals that rely on them for food and shelter; cleaning up our waters from excess nutrients and providing tourist amenities e.g. for divers and snorkelers.

“The funding from the network enabled me to develop a seaweed-based research plan; to attend conferences and meetings to learn current thinking and developments; and to develop and maintain networks with academic and industrial contacts in the area of seaweed and seaweed processing. As time has moved on, this has put me in a good position to work with the UK seaweed industry as it develops and grows as well as more fundamental seaweed science research. I currently have two PhD students and two recently-completed PhD students all working on aspects of seaweed utilisation, with more on the way. I also have a fantastic Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow working with me, an MRes student and two undergraduate project students – all on seaweeds!”

While Jessica believes the returning fellowship scheme gave her the impetus to gain all this people-power and to garner further funding, one remaining key consequence has been the collaborations with industry that have arisen.

Jessica has been part-funded since 2010 by the European Regional Development Fund through the project BEACON. A core strength of this project has been working with small and medium sized Welsh industries to develop new products and processes; using lab-scale and pilot-scale equipment and knowledge. Through BEACON and her previous contacts she has been able to make tangible differences to a number of seaweed utilising, producing and processing companies to help them scale up their ambitions.

Working with Oceanium, a Scottish company, Jessica’s team have processed hundreds of kilogrammes of seaweed from raw to final products, using the pilot-scale biorefinery. Whilst the outputs remain under wraps at this point in time, it shows that UK seaweeds can be upscaled to products meeting industrial needs.

Jessica’s work, and that of her team, continues with seaweed research venturing into diverse fields of plant biostimulants, novel seaweed-derived bioplastics, prebiotics, novel enzymes to degrade seaweed and new methods of extraction from seaweeds.

“Seaweeds have been used as food, fodder, fertiliser and fibres for millennia, but we have forgotten or disregarded so much over the last 100 years or so. Seaweeds are responsible for so many useful compounds, I am delighted that the UK seaweed industry is growing so much at this time as collectively much of these uses can be reimagined. Seaweed is also finding new niches, such as for potentially reducing methane emissions in cattle and as an alternative carbon sink; who knows what else may lead from seaweed? I am certain that the Returning Fellowship I received from the research network helped put me in a better position academically, enabling me to then put Welsh businesses and researchers at the front of this research field”.

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