Under the waters of the North Atlantic, hundreds of meters of seaweed rope lines used to farm algae are being strung up—the magic ingredient, a growing clutch of startups believe, in fighting climate change. While 97 percent of seaweed farming currently happens in Asia, British companies are looking to muscle in on the $13.3 billion industry—and maximize on the natural advantages their location brings to regenerate the planet.
Given the scale of Asia's operation, the U.K. has its work cut out. But it's a challenge that Olly Hicks believes is worthwhile "in myriad different ways." Hicks, the first person to row solo across the Atlantic from the U.S. to the U.K., is the founder of Algapelago, an algae farm in Bideford Bay, four miles from the coast of North Devon in southwest England. He has secured a license to cultivate a nearly 300-acre area along with his cousin Humphrey Atkinson, product manager at Notpla, a startup that uses seaweed as a biodegradable replacement for single-use plastics.
While Notpla and other enterprises focus on harnessing the aquatic plant for packaging, food, and cosmetics, Algapelago is working on a less common use for the slimy stuff: cow feed. A 2021 study from the University of California, Davis found that mixing a small amount of seaweed into cow feed over five months reduced Earth-polluting methane emissions by 82 percent—making it a potential green goldmine.
Algae production for commercial use tripled globally between 2000 and 2019, and the appetite for more appears to be blooming in Britain. Between 2016 and 2022, the number of commercial seaweed enterprises in the U.K. rose from one to 10. Last year, the Scottish Association for Marine Science set up the Seaweed Academy in Oban in the West Highlands as a result of the influx of calls from people wanting to set up algae farms of their own. Despite the rising interest, these small-scale offerings are eons away from the organizations churning out the majority of the world's 36 billion annual tonnes of algae. And typically, the smaller the company, the less likely they are to rely on the cheap labor and mechanized processes employed by many of Asia's most lucrative firms.
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