Are seaweed farms on oceans realistic as a solution for the climate ?

Author: Manu Steens

In the previous article I wrote down a wild idea about growing seaweed in oceans as a solution for the climate.

The actual origin of the idea was that I had seen seaweed in a shop in Antwerp in their range and the fact that I had read Bill Gates’ book, where I had my reservations about his idea of ​​​​capturing CO2 with technical solutions from the atmosphere. A basic chemistry course did the rest. But also the question whether Business Continuity Management could save the world from climate change. The idea came quickly that it will only be realized if there can be made a lot of money. And for that, industries have to be created. Possibly with creative destruction.

Today, however, I read some articles about seaweed, and oh wonder, the world has not stood still. It appears that a lot is already being done with seaweed. Time has not stood still in Belgium either. Techniques already exist, there is already a lot of knowledge and experience with cultivating seaweed, albeit on a small scale compared to what I deem necessary. But it gives courage. My first idea is certainly not contradicted. My idea is however somewhat different: let’s do that on the oceans, in ethically responsible places of course. Still the wild dream.

Suppose someone wants to draw up a project about it, what does he or she need to know, and where can they obtain information? For example, there is now talk of exploiting large seaweed breeding basins on land.

Things that need to be known are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to and from the world, which consists of each of us, but also of the environment.

Let’s focus on a SWOT here.

What are some opportunities?

  • A more than exponential increase and leap in food production, which will be necessary to continue feeding the many billions of people. Alleviate hunger in the world. In some countries in the world there are populations that (can) eat little or no meat. I am thinking of Buddhists in India, but also in Asian countries, where rice is currently often a main part of the diet, which makes the diet quite one-sided for large parts of the population. The benefits of this additional food source is an argument for its widespread adoption.
  • In addition to vegetable food, it is also possible to combine with the cultivation of shellfish.
  • Animal nutrition and fish nutrition, so that meat production does not have to be compromised, but also can increase the fish stock in the oceans.
  • Overproduction is virtually impossible, and even welcome, if handled properly.
  • A climate neutral way of producing fuel, which is already being worked on in the fuel sector. This provides an opportunity for creative destruction. A lot of money can be made in this sector, and that is an argument for developing this technology on a large scale.
  • The incredible mass of phosphates and other fertilizers that run off annually to the seas, is captured in the seaweed, so that using fertilizer might not be necessary. Which is also good for the fish stock. This also provides an opportunity for creative destruction.
  • Depending on the characteristics of the seaweeds used, fertilizers can be produced for the agricultural sector on land, because a cycle is created of the lost phosphates and other fertilizers that become available cyclically.
  • Scientific challenges and fun developing
    • logistics on oceans and on land
    • seaweed farms on a large scale as a kind of floating islands as well as
    • seaweed processing techniques that must be done immediately after harvesting. Seaweed does not store very well. This is accompanied by developments in machine construction in combination with shipbuilding
  • Political reinforcement of the countries of the OECD, but also politically unstable countries can benefit from this, such as some African countries, where the seas have been fished empty, and the water is otherwise only used for piracy.
  • Countries that invest early in these applications will quickly benefit financially.
  • Since the climate approach has to be done very quickly, these floating seaweed companies and all sectors around them must do everything they can to develop these technologies. This provides work in various sectors in addition to scientific research: job creation with regard to
    • Operating the farms
    • Logistics at sea and on land
    • The Shipment: passing food factories that produce food need hand on board
    • The trade of finished and partly finished products
    • Justice in international disputes
    • Creating legislation on exploiting the seas
    • Technology and specialized labor for shipbuilding, machine building, but also for building floating farms that must be storm-resistant.
  • As a bonus, we also get a more oxygen-rich atmosphere: trapping and binding the incredible amount of CO2 in the seas, allowing the seas to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, and even be able to deliver a fraction of 02. (This is the reverse of what is happening now.) The climate advantage thanks to this extra O2 source is an argument for applying it on a large scale.
  • As a second bonus, by growing on a large scale, the price of the finished products will be very low, while a large turnover can guarantee very large profits.

So far a number of opportunities that I can think of.

What are possible threats?

  • Seas and oceans are a hostile, an often unknown environment. There are gigantic storms. This complicates working in the logistics chain, the development and exploitation and the inhabitation of seaweed farms. Because in order to withstand the storms, the sea farms must be flexible to give in to the swells, but must contain rigid parts for “cabins”. For the benefit of the crew, stability of the sea farms is also necessary, so that the crew does not become deathly ill. Or to be able to drop them off and pick them up.
  • Hurricane areas will have to be actively avoided. 
  • Such islands may need to be able to dive like a submarine.
  • The safe, shallow, known coastlines may be suggested first to deploy these types of farms. However, that will be too small.
  • In my gut feeling, so many farms will be needed on the oceans that they could hinder international shipping, but also pleasure shipping with private yachts.
  • Shipping must be able to recognize and avoid the sea farms in time.
  • The sea farms must be known to all players, where they are located, who the owners are and who is present on them and when. This is partly to prevent or settle legal or political disputes.
  • Possible implicit political and military interests of the owners countries of this food production in relation to each other if “great powers” ​​arise in this production.
  • Vulnerable places in the oceans with great biodiversity must be respected.

Some possible strengths of “our” world.

  • There is already experience on a smaller scale with the cultivation of seaweed.
  • Seaweed grows very quickly.
  • The polytechnic engineers, mechanical engineers, shipping engineers and others can bring their knowledge together to develop a design of a prototype of a sea farm. Dr Brian von Hertzen of “the Climate Foundation” has already elaborated ideas on this. Some required specifications of such a sea farm are:
    • It must be virtually unsinkable but may need to be able to dive to avoid severe weather e.g..
    • Have a flexible enough structure
    • To be able to have a smooth crew embark and desembark
  • There is already some knowledge and practice on how to use seaweed
    • in the energy sector (this is a potential source of creative destruction) (biodiesel and combustible gases)
    • in the food sector
  • There is more awareness about the climate, and the urgency is slowly but surely better sensed.
  • Votes are raised for various reasons to start exploiting seaweed on a massive scale.
  • My experience is that if people want to realize something, they usually succeed.
  • Politics can very strongly “nudge” the private sectors through tax and other benefits for investors to make investors invest. This can be done both in terms of investments and returns.
  • Provided the right investments are made, parallel work can be done on knowledge and skills to cultivate seaweed under different circumstances: along the coastlines, on the wide oceans…
  • The OECD can play a prominent role because of its international role.
  • Political stability in the world could improve, because there could be less dependence on fossil fuels.
  • The lack of internationally agreed rules for setting up seaweed farms in international waters is more of a convenience than an inconvenience for entrepreneurs.

Some possible weaknesses of “our” world.

  • It takes a mind shift to use seaweed as a vegetable on a large scale. This takes time, which is scarce, so other derivative products must be created “en masse”.
  • The weather predictions at sea should perhaps be better known.
  • Potential political unwillingness to cooperate at an international level.
  • Possible disinterest of the economic world to invest in the development of the necessary techniques or not convinced about the possibilities.
  • The necessary sum of venture capital will be huge.
  • Too many politicians who do not yet believe in the climate problem, have too little will and priority for it and too much influence.
  • Science is not convincingly clear about the state of the climate and its causes: there is too much internal disagreement.
  • There is too little cooperation between the knowledge domains (technical, economic, political) for such a project and to succeed in the short term.
  • There are no international rules and laws in order to be able to operate these types of seaweed farms or sea farms without political entanglements. For example, what if a farm drifts into the territorial waters of a politically unstable country.
  • The techniques to be developed only partially exist. It takes time to develop these things at a normal pace. And time is running out. To make it go faster, politicians and the global economy must take the matter seriously, and be prepared to pump money into it at a fast pace, and with priority. Politicians can give a financial or other push to the potential investors.
  • Politically or monetarily unstable countries will be able to profit minimally from these achievements, unless international politics is used to provide insight into the benefits of participating politically in this.
  • Decomposition of dead seaweed can consume oxygen. Therefore, regular harvesting and processing is also necessary.

The answer is not yet given, whether seaweed farms on oceans are realistic.

To do this, the strengths and weaknesses should be linked to the opportunities and threats in a confrontation matrix that thereby defines projects and activities for each factor of a SWOT, for which this list above can be a first approach. This already shows that technical problems are not the only ones.

To this end, for an answer to the question of realism of development and a vision of cooperation over the feasibility of such an idea, there should be several fields of science and industrial sectors and the political world involved. A first idea for this is an organizational network of several communities of practice at each node of the network. They can then organize activities, partnerships, etc. to define feasible projects for issues in that confrontation matrix, once it has been established. If successful, it can be demonstrated whether the idea is feasible. After that, the super project has to start, on all fronts at once to save time and with a major advertising campaign for entrepreneurs . But those are all different ideas.

The interested reader can find more information here:

The IPCC : Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate

Are the oceans one of the solutions for the climate problem? A wild fantasy.

Author: Manu Steens

In my search for solutions to all kinds of problems, I came across a chemical principle. Namely, the gases in the atmosphere and the gases in the water of the oceans are in equilibrium. This means that the ratio of CO2, O2, N2, noble gases , etc. in the atmosphere is identical to the ratio of them, dissolved in the water.

This has a negative effect on planting trees as a solution to the rising CO2 problem. Because according to the idea, if we capture CO2 from the atmosphere with trees, whatever they do, then the ocean-atmosphere system will seek a new equilibrium and thereby, to equalize the partial pressures again, emit CO2 into the atmosphere, and absorb O2. That wouldn’t be a big deal, if it weren’t for the fact that every M3 of seawater absorbed several M3 of gas throughout history, making the amount of CO2 accumulated in the water vastly more than that accumulated in its entirety in the atmosphere. That is the difference between the proportions and amounts of CO2 in the water and in the atmosphere of our planet. And it is to our disadvantage with trees as a solution. In his book, Bill Gates describes that just planting trees is not the quick fix. Moreover, the area of ​​forestable earth surface is much less than the amount of water surface, so that the new equilibrium will be established very quickly, and it will take a very long time before trees have sufficiently absorbed of the CO2 at hand. Besides the fact that forests also have other uses, there is then the question of what we should do with all that wood, and where we could still grow food…

Here’s a sketch of the problem. I also have little faith in any technology that extracts the CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it somewhere underground. How quickly will such technology be ready, and how can we also recover the O2 from the CO2 ? Which we also need. And here too, with this solution, the water will create a new equilibrium. Then the amount of O2 may be compromised, as energy production continues. So I find this suggestion even less gallant as a solution.

So the problem is that we have to reduce CO2, recover O2 from it, like trees do, but trees are not the only solution. Then there is the problem of overfishing, dying oceans, world hunger which can become one of the next problems … a lot of problems in a row. And the extraction of O2 from CO2 must be done on a large scale and fast.

And maybe that can be done at sea.

The oceans cover about 2/3 to ¾ of the surface of the earth. Part of this could be used to cultivate seaweed. The idea is that seaweed could be grown in large farms at sea, to prevent it from sinking to great depths, where sunshine diminishes. In addition to growing massive amounts of seaweed to convert CO2 to O2 both in the oceans and in the atmosphere that is in equilibrium with it, it can be used to:

  • produce hydrocarbons as fuels (which, by the way, is already being researched),
  • produce food for humans (which is already happening) and animals,
  • create employment on these sea farms,
  • maybe it may even be possible to create fertilizers from it for existing agriculture.

That would be a multiple gain, provided that good seaweed types can be selected that meet the preconditions for useful use.

However, there are questions that can arise, such as, how do we secure a farm so that it does not sink in a storm? How do we place the farms in the oceans so that there is a minimum burden on shipping? How do we bring people from the farm to the shore and vice versa, from the shore to the farm to work or inspect, etc.? In which legal system does one include farms located on international waters? How can efficient harvesting and processing be done, and how can the harvest be efficiently brought to the shore? Which country gets which rights to the proceeds? Can these farms function fully mechanically, or is one or another form of energy (electricity with solar panels, wind energy) required? Does the marine flora breeding farm also need marine fauna ?

People you need are people with enthusiasm like Elon Musk to achieve a lot in a short time, the views of scientists to make it realistic in terms of using seaweeds and in terms of operation on a large scale and a global politics with the will to make it work.

And if it turns out to be technically or politically unfeasible, then it was still a great idea.

What are points of attention in crisis management ?

Author: Manu Steens

A friend once told me “I don’t need advice, nobody has to give it to me”. The reason behind those words was that she has a very strong feeling that “advice” as a word actually has an addictive effect, making the advised person dependent on the advisor. Later, according to her, this would be revenged when you can no longer think or act independently. Yet I use the word advice here because I have no better word. In my experience with crises, there are a number of things that you should pay attention to.

  1. Be kind to yourself.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That’s why you have to have time for yourself, for your spirit – and body. So that you don’t outrun yourself. During some crises, such as during the corona crisis, I started very motivated. In three months I saved almost 1.5 months in overtime. It is therefore not only important that you recover (part of) this during and after the crisis, it is also important that you stop yourself in between. That you are there for yourself. For me, a shave was such a moment, sometimes a cup of coffee. For others, that may be reading the newspaper with a croissant. In a prolonged crisis, it is important that you learn to quickly and effectively press a pause button at times.

  • Know your business.

There is nothing more frustrating than dealing with a crisis and not finding the ends you can pull to unravel the problem. You are the crisis manager. You must act NOW. You are in the middle of the arena and you have to pull all the strings in the right order to get a good result. To survive that “fight”, you must have weapons. But having weapons is not enough. You must know how to deal with it easily. They must be an extension of yourself. Like driving a car, you should no longer have to think “where is the brake?”. Braking should be automatic. The deployment of people and resources as well. To do this, you have to be able to count on your people and resources. But you have to know them: you have to know what they stand for, what they can do, what you can expect.

  • Be a leader, a coach, a manager, an entrepreneur,…

But above all, be human. Crisis management is 90% communication, so make sure you stay human. Communicate from person to person. Do not fall into the trap of giving blind orders, without an eye for the human nature of yourself and your fellow man. Yes you can have expectations. Yes you have to give orders. Yes you have to ask for information and yes they have to obey. And yet, no, humans are not machines. A wink, a pat on the back, a “please” and “thank you” on the right time can sometimes do wonders. Leave everyone in their dignity.

  • “Dress for the occasion”.

Some people think that work is official, and therefore requires a suit. In some functions, that may be true. A CEO who should report the situation in the board perhaps best uses a suit and tie. A spokesperson appearing for the press may do so also. Still, my advice in this area is: dress in such a way that you feel best in it. A crisis team is not an army platoon … You don’t need a uniform. Be yourself to maximize your return, including with regard to your clothing.

  • Create a reward prospect, and occasionally celebrate the achieved milestones.

Humans are not machines. Plugging in is sometimes difficult , but turning it off is not simply possible. People like to have a word of appreciation in between, they also like a bright spot at the end of the tunnel. For crisis management it is important that a bright spot is created here and there in the course of the battle. After a few months of Covid19, we were already talking about what we want after the crisis. Our teams had a unanimous wish: a BBQ at the end of the ride. In between, after one year, we were spoiled with a meal by a chef. It must not always be super-de-luxe. The important thing is that the team members can also enjoy themselves together. Because a crisis also creates a bond between people that goes beyond work. A crisis creates a common enemy. And that creates a “brother and sisterhood”. ” The blood of the convent is thicker than the water of the womb.” Applies. There is a “we” feeling. The value thereof is inestimable.

  • Watch your diet and exercise.

A good mood is very important to keep a healthy soul in a healthy body. Diet and exercise are important factors for this. You are what you eat and exercise releases happiness hormones in the brain, which are necessary for psychological energy. Fibers in food is important because the spirit of the soul and the fluency of digestion are always closely linked.

  • Make sure you know yourself.

Look for yourself before you have to deal with a crisis. What do you love? What makes you happy? What gives you energy? At what time of day do you usually have your good ideas? Man is a creature of habit. Therefore, always look for such moments when the situation becomes difficult. Check with yourself that you are not in danger of outrunning yourself. Burnout in the middle of a crisis is of no use to anyone. It has no added value and it weakens your team, because your expertise is no longer or less present. Therefore, make sure you realize whether you are in balance. If not, do something about it immediately. Explore yourself in peacetime. Know your limits.

  • Radical is not wrong.

Go for the solution. Instant and unstoppable. Choose the best solution, and don’t be afraid to make sacrifices. Sometimes situations are simple. E.g. you may have to extinguish a fire. You should not doubt whether you are doing the right thing with that extinguishing, because either everything sees white, or everything sees black. Although I believe in the values ​​of Daniel Kahneman (author of ‘Thinking fast and slow’), I am convinced that speed of thought is also important in a crisis. But to be able to do that meaningfully, this ‘thinking fast’ must be trained. In addition to making exercises with fast thinking, a lot of ‘slow thinking’ also serves this purpose. That slow thinking is ideal for making plans in advance, because at that moment it allows you to think radically through hypothetical situations. Exploring and investigating every possible twist of the plan. And you have to keep planning for that. You can go up to the level where you think it is still realistic, and then you have to dare to go a step further. Only practice makes perfect, also in thinking. Don’t stick to one worst case scenario. Make many.

  • Keep smiling !

Humor is not evident in a crisis. Nevertheless, it is absolutely necessary to have a humor (if necessary, black) when the accident affects the organization or people. That sounds antisocial, and it is. But humor and laughter are the best weapons to face a new crisis and to continue to deal with it. In Africa, there are tribes of people who, when disaster strikes, are gathering and begin laugh about their misery. They have the experience that the disaster seems much smaller and more manageable afterwards. And they build up the courage to fight it. Laughter is therefore also healthy in a crisis! A tip that is not out of place here is to prepare the meetings with a presentation tool, and to place a photo or drawing in it on the first and last slide that shows the seriousness with a wink. However, there is a danger of exaggeration. One has to watch out for that.

  1. The Four Laws of Antifragile

Even during a crisis, measures are taken that must be weighed up against necessary and sufficient. Strictly speaking, the following four criteria apply to measures: they must

  • be proportional,
  • be prudent,
  • be effective,
  • be efficient.

But these four rules only become applicable when one wants to consider the quality of a measure. There are also four interpretable rules that contribute to the creation of a measure:

  1. don’t hurt yourself,
  2. do no harm to another,
  3. don’t break anything,
  4. if it doesn’t go against these first three rules, take your chances.

These rules can be interpreted according to the situation, because the main crises affect people in a statistical way, and sometimes interventions have to be done in a statistical way. That’s the burden a crisis manager carries.