Is Seaweed (Yes, Seaweed) The Answer To All Our Problems?
Joost Wouters had a successful career. The Dutchman worked for Procter & Gamble, Pepsi-Cola, and had his own management consulting firm. Then he discovered seaweed and left everything behind.
“If you think about igniting an economic revolution inspired by nature then seaweed is one of the catalysts,” says Joost Wouters. The tall Dutch entrepreneur sits at a coffee table in Zermatt’s Mont Cervin Palace Hotel — talking fast and passionate. He is attending the Zermatt Summit to present his vision.
“Seaweed is the fastest growing biomass on the planet.”
In an earlier life, he worked for the multi-billion-dollar companies Procter & Gamble and Pepsi. Then he tried to promote a more human approach to management with his consulting firm. But it was the work of former NASA scientist Dr. Douglas Kalkwarf, that turned his life around.
“It was Dr. Kalkwarf who came up with the idea to grow seaweed and also invented the bio-digester. I fell in love with this concept. It is feasible and scalable. That was the trigger, and as you dive deeper into the topic, you see all this potential,” explains Mr. Wouters and continues in his enthusiastic way: “Imagine, there’s no mechanism known to humanity better addressing climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide via photosynthesis like plants are doing it — seaweed as well. And seaweed is the fastest growing biomass on the planet.”
The process is as simple as it is revolutionary: The biomass is digested by bacteria which generate biogas. Biomass is already turned into gas or being burned to produce heat. Nevertheless, there is one main advantage to seaweed: “It doesn’t need land, fresh water or fertilizer to grow. It only needs saltwater, sunlight, and nutrients,” tells Mr. Wouters.
Seaweed has been cultivated for centuries. Today, 99 percent of the global production takes place in Asia where it processed into food. The farmers work manually; they grow the seaweed on lines. “Per hectare per year, they produce twenty to fifty tons. That amount is not enough to create a business model. We need to increase the number of yields per hectare,” Mr. Wouters argues.
Immense Amount Of Applications
Embracing the concept of the Blue Economy proposed by Prof. Gunter Pauli, seaweed has vast potential letting many business cases emerge around it. It’s not only an energy source, explains Mr. Wouters: “You can use it for food, feed for animals, bio-plastics, and extracts for medicine.” Today, seaweed extracts can already be found in ice cream or toothpaste. But there are many other applications to explore. “I’ve had in my hands the very first transparent plastic made entirely out of seaweed. I’ve met an interior designer who creates furniture by pressing the material. I’ve seen different ways of producing energy whether it’s biogas or heat.”
One of the most promising applications of the digestion is fresh water. Seaweed consists of approximately 80 percent of desalted water. “If you install the digesters in water-scarce regions, it could help many people,” says Mr. Wouters enthusiastically.
An Answer To Climate Change?
Seaweed absorbs carbon dioxide. At worst, the biogas is CO₂-neutral, at best, it is reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by replacing fossil gas. “We made calculations for Argentina where we looked to replace the shale gas that’s been exploited in Patagonia. About 12'000 to 30'000 square kilometers of Patagonia right now is being ‘raped’ to get the gas. That’s not nice. We calculated we need probably 3000 to 5000 square kilometers to produce the same amount of gas. That’s when it becomes interesting because it’s a political choice,” says Mr. Wouters.
“About 12'000 to 30'000 square kilometers of Patagonia right now is being ‘raped’ to get the gas.”
In a way, modern society is already using gas made out of seaweed, the man explains. The problem is that it dates back millions of years. The stored carbon dioxide gets released.
Anyway, people have mixed feelings about gas. “The most prominent companies like Shell are using all their marketing to say that they moved to natural gas assuming that it’s a solution,” tells Mr. Wouters. “When we think about renewable energy, we think about solar panels, windmills, and dams. But if you look at the global energy demand, only one-seventh is electricity. The other part is the heat. Therefore you need a highly concentrated energy source which gas is. The only thing is, we should keep the existing gas where it is and generate it from other sources.”
Seaweed Might Even Overthrow The Powerful
Wouters’ proposal: Producing gas from seaweed near the equator where there are the best growing conditions. The liquefied gas will be shipped to Europe and fed into the existing network.
He is conscious of the fact that global shipment is one of the biggest polluters in the world: “I’m not one of the guys saying our solution will save everything. It’s just a part of the puzzle. Will there be situations where it’s more optimal than others? Definitely. In the end, it’s a question of economic value. I don’t think something will succeed if you have to build completely new infrastructure.”
“I hope we can be part of that revolution.”
If Wouters is right, seaweed has not only the capability to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges but also to shift the power in a significant manner. Theoretically, every island or country with access to the sea may gain independence from nations exporting fossil fuels. Obviously, this change requires new business models to prevent a new generation of multi-national cooperations from accumulating power.
The optimist Wouters stays confident: “I hope we can be part of that revolution. The countries exporting fossil fuels will anyway have to think about their future. Their influence is not sustainable. It will end, guys!”
Natural And Financial Challenges Ahead
However, for the seaweed industry to expand, there are some obstacles to tackle. Fortunately, seaweed is a very robust organism. There are thousands of different species — some grow better in warm water, others in the cold. Scientists discovered that different types of seaweed came into the area after a volcano eruption to deacidify the water.
For humans, the rough conditions of the sea are challenging. “Saltwater kills everything,” says Mr. Wouters. His team works with special plastics to engineer the farming structures. Also, the needed nutrients can be a problem. Wouters’ idea is to collaborate with the expanding fish farms. “The excretions of the fish have those nutrients. It’s a great symbiosis.”
Although the natural obstacles may be solved, the most crucial challenge remains finance. Mr. Wouters needs investments to validate his scalable production. “For a project in Ireland, we need one million dollars for the first step. At the moment, investors say ‘Come back when you’ve validated it’ — Yeah, that’s the thing, we need the money now to do it.”
Nobody in the western hemisphere is stepping in fully, Mr. Wouters tells. “In Asia, they know that the seaweed works. In the west, on the other hand, seaweed is that nasty stuff that gets between your toes when you walk on the beach. We do need different legislation and ways of thinking. I think, once we prove it and show the world it can be done; then the doors are open.”
“We didn’t find the key to get the money.”
He identified a common issue with sustainable start-ups: Even if entrepreneurs have innovative ideas, they are unable to translate them into the financial language of risk and return. “The missing piece is the interface. We don’t play the game well enough. There aren’t enough financial engineers who understand both sides — the sustainability and the capital.”
Mr. Wouters is desperately looking for investors for his Ireland-based project. He wants to put one hectare of growth structures in the water. “After a year, we know for real what we can get out of it. Then we can build a business case on that.”
But for now, his team of three is working with hardly any resources. They talk to governments, engineer the required technologies without any payment. “We didn’t find the key to get the money,” Mr. Wouters admits. Nevertheless, his whole heart beats for the potential resource. Joost Wouters will not give up.