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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Logistics at sea and on land
- The Shipment: passing food factories that produce food need hand on
- 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
So far a number of
opportunities that I can think of.
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
- 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
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)
- 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
- 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
- Possible disinterest of the economic world to invest in
the development of the necessary techniques or not convinced about
- 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
- 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
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.
reader can find more information here:
The IPCC : Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate