Sea Kelp

A deep dive into the Sequoia of the Sea and the environmental benefits it has to our planet.

An Introduction to Kelp

Rising temperatures and growing population have scientists, corporations, and governing bodies searching for ways to alleviate the consequences of human activity on the earth. As a result, alternative methods of energy have been sourced by using solar panels, turbines, plants, and more. While giant kelp is technically not a plant, it’s proving to be an excellent source of biofuel as scientists and companies alike realize the multiple benefits of this macroalgae.

Kelp is a type of seaweed and is classified as algae because it lacks the vascular structure that plants have. It also cannot form roots, flowers or branches the way plants do. Kelp can grow up to 145 feet underwater and in certain conditions can gain 18 inches a day in height. Such growth rates make kelp a great candidate for a replenishable energy source. The marine-based alga grows best in cold, shallow waters and can be found thriving off the coast.

It is particularly prevalent in the southern Californian coast. Kelp grows by attaching itself to the ocean floor and grows upwards until it reaches the surface, using the sun as a nutrient. Because kelp grows in forests, it makes the perfect home for many other types of marine life. Some even call it the “Sequoia of the Sea.”

How does kelp offer a role in combating climate change exactly? Thankfully, there are a handful of possible solutions giant kelp offers. To start, kelp forests are considered carbon sinks, meaning more carbon dioxide is absorbed by them than is released. Kelp’s ability to absorb carbon emissions can also be done without the competition for land space, which is always a concern for forests and other agriculture above ground. They also have the potential to create renewable plastics and serve as an alternative protein to meat. Perhaps one of the most intriguing possibilities of kelp is its potential as a biofuel which would help wean human dependence on oil. Because kelp-based biofuel is still a developing concept, many may not be aware of what this biofuel would look like in use. Fortunately, there is plenty of research currently in progress to learn more about kelp’s role in carbon reduction.

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How Does Kelp Become a Biofuel?

The USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies and Marine BioEnergy, Inc are collaborating on the Kelp Biofuel Project. The two organizations hope to establish a way to farm kelp in the open ocean, rather than its regular near-shore locations in order to grow kelp on a large scale for biofuel. Researchers are interested in kelp for more than one reason. Beyond the benefit of not competing for land space, kelp also doesn’t need fresh water to thrive. Virtually all crops and livestock above ground need fresh water, a resource that is expected to be in short supply in the near future. Being one of the few types of agriculture that does not require fresh water, kelp has become an enticing option for farmers and researchers alike. Harvesting kelp can create one type of resource without depleting the planet of another.

There are two known methods to produce biofuel from kelp: fermentation and hydrothermal liquefaction. The fermentation of kelp produces ethanol, a renewable fuel that is typically yielded from corn. Although it’s classified as fuel, ethanol is used in several products that some may not typically expect. Ethanol is often found in hand sanitizers thanks to its ability to kill bacteria and fungi. Many topical products like lotion and cosmetics also use ethanol as a preservative.

Most notably, a majority of gasoline in the United States contains ethanol to assist in cutting down on air pollution.

Research shows that creating ethanol from corn and soybean crops increases water contamination. This is largely due to the pesticides and fertilizers that farmers use on the plants. Kelp requires neither as it grows at faster rates in its natural, underwater habitat and without any unwanted pests. Switching gears from corn to kelp could potentially reduce the amount of water pollution created.

The Kelp Biofuel Project, however, is focused on biofuel production through hydrothermal liquefaction. In this method a wet biomass is placed into a pressurized water environment where temperatures can reach to 660 degrees Fahrenheit. Doing so disintegrates the biomass into a liquid that can be used as a substitute to traditional oil. Kelp would become a biocrude allowing it to function as regular fuel.

The Carbon Sink

Because there are several angles to approach kelp as a climate change solution, there are varying methods companies are taking to use kelp. Running Tide Technologies, for example, is not focused on turning kelp into biofuel. Instead, this startup aims to address the climate crisis by capturing carbon dioxide with kelp and sinking it to the ocean floor. The company’s mission statement is to,  “harness the power of the ocean to build a climate positive future.” Comprised of fishermen, engineers, oceanographers, data scientists, and more, Running Tide Technologies hopes to restore the ecosystems that have been tarnished by climate change and human behavior. Sinking kelp to the floor is a relatively new method. Being so, there is a lot to learn in terms of how the process can be done efficiently and successfully.

Whether organizations are farming kelp for fuel or using it to absorb carbon, both methods are in the early stages of research. There aren’t many long term results available to assess how it will affect the environment over time. Removing humankind’s dependency on oil, while simultaneously eradicating carbon levels is a promising future. However, researchers have yet to determine potential risks to mass kelp production. It’s equally important to assess how sinking kelp might impact the ocean floor ecosystem. Likewise, scientists will need to explore how manmade kelp farms might disturb shipping or wildlife. It is imperative that with the increased interest and investment in kelp, the pros and cons are measured and compared. If limitations to these processes are found, the most ethical ways to address the climate crisis must be determined without creating another problem elsewhere. Despite these possible concerns, kelp production still remains a viable option in creating a healthier planet.

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Leaders in Kelp Farming & Harvesting

Many people may not think of the ocean when they hear the word “farmer,” but seaweed farmers have been around for hundreds of years, originating in countries like Japan and South Korea. Even in North America generations of indigenous groups, like the Eyak people, cultivated seaweed for food and other purposes. Dune Lankard, an Eyak Athabaskan Native and founder of Native Conservancy, explains that his people are the guardians of the Copper River Delta region who have used kelp as a traditional food source. To this day seaweed continues to be an integral part in the cultural identity and culinary traditions of the Eyak people. The long-lasting and detrimental effects of colonialism along with the 1989 Exxon oil spill, led Lankard to create Native Conservancy as a way to protect and preserve Alaska Native ecosystems. As a result, the organization created a kelp program to support native communities’ rights to the waters and wild kelp in the region.

Today, kelp farming has expanded to include both indigenous communities and newer organizations who all hope to clean the waters and atmosphere with kelp. Sea Grove Kelp is one of these companies that regards kelp as a net positive, meaning it gives more to the environment than it takes away. On their website the company shares that kelp, “has a lower carbon footprint,” than all land-based food production. As mentioned, farming kelp does not require fertilizers, pesticides, freshwater or land.

Seaweed farmers have been around for hundreds of years

Choosing to farm kelp allows wild kelp to remain in the oceans without being depleted too quickly. While harvesting wild kelp by small groups and indigenous communities presents no threat to kelp forests, it does require more planning to ensure the algae is collected in a sustainable fashion. This is where farming comes into practice as it is controlled and more predictable. Farmers know when to expect bulk harvests as there are defined seasons and schedules when it comes to farming. Despite these differences, both wild and farmed kelp yield the same amount of nutrients.

On the other end of the United States, North American Kelp prides itself on protecting kelp and promoting responsible harvest of macroalgae. While some organizations begin their own kelp farms, North American Kelp uses wild-harvested kelp that is already growing in the ocean. The company never collects the entire seaweed so that it may continue growing and providing a habitat for marine life. Founded by marine engineer, Robert Morse, the company harvests kelp to create kelp meals, powders, and liquid fertilizers. The kelp meals are an organic option to feed livestock, while the fertilizers provide a chemical-free option to keep soil healthy for plants. Traditional fertilizer contains by-products and chemicals that can be harmful to the environment. Producing kelp fertilizer is a prime example of how seaweed gives companies the ability to supply a product that is profitable, functioning and non-toxic.

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Kelp for Food

Going past its uses as fertilizer and animal feed, kelp is a great source of nutrition for people. It’s no surprise that generations of indigenous groups in North America and those in Asian countries have consumed kelp for so many years. The seaweed has natural sources of protein, fiber, omega 3s, vitamin D, and iodine. It’s also a great source of B1, B2, B6, and B12, even exceeding that of spinach or cabbage. At present, China stands as the world’s largest producer of seaweed and in the last ten years the production of seaweed has doubled worldwide.

One of Europe’s biggest seaweed farmers, Seaweed Solutions, cultivates its seaweed off the coast of Norway and sells to several food producers in Europe. With a vision to produce seaweed at a large scale, the company hopes to provide food, feed, and bioplastics from kelp. Its business model drew the attention of the research program, Horizon 2020, that funded NOK 16 million to the company; just shy of two million US dollars.

Back in the United States, Daily Harvest, a plant-based meal delivery service, partners with Atlantic Sea Farms to supply kelp to their members. CEO Briana Warner founded Atlantic Sea Farms as the first commercial kelp farm in the country. In order to maintain a fresh and vibrant product, Warner’s farm freezes the vegetable within 24 hours of its harvest.

In 2019 the company introduced five new products: sea-beet kraut, fermented seaweed salad, kelp kimchi, frozen kelp cubes, and ready-cut frozen kelp. Daily Harvest explains their partnership with Atlantic Sea Farms stems from the desire to provide quality ingredients with an organic origin. Members of the delivery service can find kelp in meals like the Brussels Sprouts + Lime Pad Thai Harvest Bowl.

Daily Harvest hasn’t been the only company to take notice in Atlantic Sea Farms either. Just before Covid-19 hit the United States at the start of 2020, the salad restaurant chain, Sweetgreen, collaborated with Chef David Cheng and Atlantic Sea Farms to craft their own signature meal. Together they designed the Tingly Sweet Potato + Kelp Bowl. Sweetgreen explained its choice to incorporate kelp by citing its ability to eliminate carbon from the atmosphere along with all the nutrients it provides.

It’s clear the foodservice and restaurant industry alike recognize kelp for what it is, an eco-friendly way to provide taste and nutrition to the masses. With a rapidly climbing global population and agricultural land in short supply, turning to kelp as a global food source could be part of the solution. Eating more kelp would lessen the burden and dependency on other agriculture and livestock. Kelp has even garnered the nickname of “climate-friendly vegetable” by The New York Times. Given its ample health benefits and its low carbon footprint, it’s no wonder more restaurants are incorporating kelp into their menus.

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Benefits for the Environment and Economy

Kelp has a growth rate that's 30 to 60 times faster than land-based plants.

Before humans discovered how beneficial seaweed was for their own bodies, kelp swayed in the waters providing shelter to life underwater. From the dark ocean floor to its briny surface, the stipes and blades of kelp create an ecosystem all their own. The base of the kelp, called a holdfast, is where many sea stars, urchins, and sponges find their home. Travelling roughly 145 feet upward, sea otters can be found latching themselves onto the blades of kelp to keep themselves from drifting during slumber.

The shelter kelp provides doesn’t just benefit sea creatures. Shellfish living among kelp tend to be sweeter with larger meat due to the improved water quality created by the macroalgae, leading to a better quality meal on the dinner plate. The seaweed also generates a more livable environment during storms and strong tides. As stated earlier, the presence of kelp forests slows down ocean currents, helping both marine and human life navigate the waters with more ease. Combine this with its carbon catching abilities, giant kelp proves itself to be a major asset to the planet.

Kelp has a growth rate that's 30 to 60 times faster than land-based plants.

Beyond these many environmental gains, kelp’s potential to build a regenerative economy should not be overlooked. The population growth has led to an increased amount of consumption that the earth cannot sustain under current conditions. Regenerative economics prioritizes consuming only what is necessary, cooperation over competition, and eliminating waste. This economic system focuses on capital assets that are renewable and considers things like the earth and sun to have economic value. Given kelp’s constant intake of sunlight, and growth rate that’s 30 to 60 times faster than land-based plants, it becomes a worthwhile capital asset. Kelp farming and harvesting could benefit people, the planet and our profits simultaneously.

Business leaders would be wise to keep an eye on how research and technology pertaining to seaweed develops in the next coming years. Giant kelp has always been an integral part of our oceans’ ecosystems and soon it may very well be a key player in the global economy.

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