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Cluster story: Algae and blue bioeconomy

Published on: Tue, 25/01/2022 - 18:32
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    Algae are critical to our existence. They produce roughly 50% of oxygen on earth, thus contributing to ocean and coastal productivity, as well as to food security.

    © damiedias - stock.adobe.com

    Algae are fascinating life forms. Not only have they been around for over a billion years, they also reign as the ancestors of all aquatic and land plants on earth. Without plants to feed on, aquatic organisms would never have evolved into fish which, in turn, would never have evolved into land animals, including humans. And despite their ancient origins, algae continue to be critical to our existence even today, by contributing to ocean and coastal productivity, as well as to food security. They produce roughly 50% of oxygen on earth. They also absorb CO2 and, in doing so, lend us a helping hand in our fight against global warming.

    In addition, cultivation of algae leaves a low environmental footprint because, just as with shellfish, they are not fed with crops or other marine life. Instead, they feed on nutrients – nutrients that might otherwise cause eutrophication.

    Though of common usage in speech, the word “algae” is actually an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of species, ranging from unicellular microalgae organisms visible only through a microscope to multicellular macroalgae forms, such as the seaweed we’re all familiar with. The multicellular forms are traditionally broken down into red, brown and green macroalgae, based on – guess what? – their colour.

    Having “fuelled” the evolution of all life on earth is already an outstanding achievement for algae, yet there’s even more. One of the most mind-boggling things about algae is their versatility. Studies are underway to investigate algae’s potential to mitigate climate change and to absorb nutrients. And this list below presents just some of the beneficial economic and environmental and healthcare options algae offer:

    • Eat them. Algae have been a source of food for millennia. In East and South-East Asia, algae are a staple of local cuisine. While not equally popular in Europe, they are a growing sector.
    • Fertilise soil. Algae have long been used to fertilise crops as they provide a rich source of nutrients and organic matter.
    • Make bioplastics. Yes, algae produce polymers that can be used to make 100% marine-biodegradable plastic.
    • Develop medical drugs. Compounds extracted from algae have proved to be effective against health conditions such as cancer, allergies, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and inflammation.
    • Skincare. Microalgal extracts are part of various cosmetics such as anti-aging and rejuvenating creams, sun protectants and hair care products.
    • Fix what we break. Algae can be used to remove, degrade, or render harmless pollutants in aquatic systems. Pollutants are introduced into the aquatic ecosystems as a result of human activities involving agricultural use, fuel use, industrial discharges, domestic effluents and agricultural runoff.
    • Burn cleaner fuel. Algae’s biomass used in biofuel production has an advantage over the biofuel produced from agricultural feedstock. Algae cultivation has the advantage of not needing agricultural land and irrigation.

    With such enormous potential, it is no wonder that the EU Commission has gone to great lengths to support the algae sector, as part of its effort to fully embed the blue economy into the Green Deal and the recovery strategy.

    The Communication on a new approach for a sustainable blue economy in the EU (COM(2021) 240 final) recognises algae’s potential for delivering a number of sustainable applications and calls for adopting a dedicated initiative in 2022 to support the development of the EU’s algae industry. The initiative will build on the results of “Blue bioeconomy – towards a strong and sustainable EU algae sector”, a public consultation run from May to August 2021.

    The recently launched EU4Algae Forum will create a European algae stakeholder forum to support bringing more algae-based products to the market.

    A dedicated knowledge hub, set up by the Joint Research Centre of the EU Commission, contains facts and figures about algae biomass production in Europe, including a dashboard with production locations. It also links to ongoing research projects, recent publications and other useful information.

    Further, a number of cutting-edge research projects are being funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).

    Biogears is developing biobased ropes useful in offshore mussel and algae aquaculture. These ropes are an important step towards a greener aquaculture industry. OpenMode is testing floating connectable modules for intensive farming in open waters. Eight modules will be installed in Spain, Denmark, Croatia, Montenegro and Malta; local farmers will share these modules to harvest molluscs or macroalgae. They will learn through trainings how to use them to avoid predation, achieve more phytoplankton or scale-up compensation measures, and then they will share their user experience with the designers and other farmers. AMALIA aims to screen marine invasive macroalgae in order to identify high-value molecules and enriched extracts with pharmacological, feed and food potential and, in turn, to boost the development of high added value products that may be deployed in the market within 2 to 4 years. AlgaeDemo aims to demonstrate the sustainable, large-scale industrial cultivation of select native bred seaweed species in the open sea. By applying a state-of-the-art autonomous underwater vehicle for monitoring the growth of the macroalgae and the condition of the substrates and anchoring, a largely automated and highly reliable seaweed farm will be built to reduce costs as well as risks to people, property and global warming. AFRIMED will develop and promote robust protocols to restore damaged or degraded macroalgal forests in the Mediterranean. It will also provide a framework for scaling up the approach in other regions.

    More info on algae

    Complete list of EMFF-funded projects

    Project name Start date End date Total budget in € EU contribution in € 
    Biobased gears as solutions for the creation of an eco-friendly offshore aquaculture sector, in a multitrophic approach, and new biobased value chains (Biogears) 01/11/2019 30/04/2023 1,179,025 943,220
    Demonstration of intensive shellfish farming in OPEN waters with resilient and affordable MODulEs (OpenMode) 01/11/2019 31/10/2021 844,967 549,228
    Algae-to-Market Lab Ideas - Adding value to marine invasive seaweeds of the Iberian northwest (AMALIA) 01/02/2017 31/01/2019 581,413 465,129
    Demonstration of large scale seaweed cultivation at open sea and the positive effects thereof on the ocean (AlgaeDemo) 01/01/2019 31/12/2022 1,538,203 999,833
    Algal Forest Restoration In the MEDiterranean Sea (AFRIMED) 01/01/2019 31/12/2022 1,858,354 1,486,111
    Promotion of large scale sea cultivation of green seaweed (ULVA FARM) 01/10/2021 31/12/2023 1,209,555 846,689
    An innovative, sector-leading seaweed biorefinery that enables the European blue circular economy (KELP-EU) 01/10/2021 31/03/2023 3,091,347 2,158,801
    Eco-friendly and sustainable new family of biopesticides based on microalgae via circular economy approach (ALGAENAUTS) 01/10/2021 30/09/2023 1,358,836 951,185
    Fish substitute from algae to preserve marine wildlife and develop algaculture (SEAFOOD ALGTERNATIVE) 01/08/2021 31/07/2023 2,837,219 1,986,053
    Replacing soy with Pekilo protein in aquafeed (AquaPekilo) 01/10/2021 30/09/2024 1,678,830 1,175,181 
    Sustainably produced Marine Coral for Innovative Applications in Bio-medicine for Human Health (CORAL4HEALTH) 01/11/2019 31/10/2021 872,390 567,053

    Useful links

    Knowledge hub on algal biomass

    Phycomorph website

    Report on the Community of Practice Workshop: Algae production in Europe: status, challenges and future developments

    EUMOFA Blue Bioeconomy Report, 2018

    EUMOFA Blue Bioeconomy Report, 2020

    EMODnet data set on algae production facilities

    Discovering algae’s power as a renewable resource

    ValgOrize (Interreg project)

    GRASS: Growing Macroalgae Sustainably in the Baltic Sea (Interreg project)