In advancing Scotland’s interest in developing and exploiting commercial opportunities – marrying its substantial natural resources and R&D capacity with emerging and innovative technologies – various investigations into the cultivation, harvesting and processing of seaweeds have been commissioned in recent years.  In the latest such exercise, Hambrey Consulting, in association with Nautilus Consultants, has been tasked with the job of drawing together disparate research findings into the cultivation, harvesting and utilisation of seaweed in a techno-economic assessment of the potential for commercialisation – either as a source of biomass for energy, or as the raw material for high value chemical extraction. 

This latest piece of research, recently completed on behalf of Scottish Enterprise, has taken a closer look at the economics of the cultivation of seaweeds as a feedstock for biofuel production, as well as exploring potential for further commercialisation in the more conventional areas of harvesting wild seaweed resources for the extraction of marine colloids and other medium and high value chemical extracts. 

Biofuel production is a hot topical issue, and in the last two or three years wide ranging studies in many parts of the world have been undertaken to examine the pros and cons of large scale cultivation of seaweeds.  The core idea is very seductive, particularly if it can be coupled with (in a European context) the development of offshore renewables and the large scale engineering infrastructures that are likely to accompany such development.  But there is a wide range of technical, regulatory and cost constraints to such development still to be researched and overcome.

The more conventional route of marine colloid extraction – for example production of alginate – may have more mileage, building on the knowledge that substantial seaweed resources are to be found all around the Scottish coastline.  But once again, life is never so straightforward.  Not only is this is a highly competitive business, with processing and packaging dominated by large multi-national corporations, but there are also sizeable obstacles to large-scale harvesting in the form of planning rules and environmental impact, but also in the practical achievement of economies of scale through automation of harvesting, handling and processing. 

Interestingly, it was a Scottish scientist back in the late 19th century that developed the processes for the chemical extraction of alginate, and one of the first companies in the world to commercially extract alginate at an industrial scale was the UK company Cefoil, later Alginate Industries, which drew its raw material from the Outer Hebrides and west coast of Scotland.  The processing started by this company back in the 1930s continued to be undertaken in Scotland until only a few years ago, but has since been relocated to Norway.   

But there are also other uses for the products of seaweed – as a plant fertiliser and top dressing, for use in animal feeds, as sea vegetables, and as the basis for various spa treatments and beauty treatments and products.  And there are tantalisingly early outputs of research into the bioactive properties of extracts of seaweed that indicate potential for application in treatment of, variously, inflammation, cancer and malaria – though none such applications have achieved traction to date.