Amazon has invested €1.5 million into North Sea Farm 1, a planned commercial-scale seaweed farm located between offshore wind turbines, to set up the project and study seaweed carbon capture potential.
- North Sea Farm 1, operated by a consortium of scientific researchers and partners from the seaweed industry, will start operations in late 2023.
- The production of seaweed will be complemented by research on the potential for its contribution to the carbon removal markets.
- The project developers hope to set up a commercial-scale farm that can serve as an example for similar projects across Europe, which will have plenty of benefits.
The project is managed by a consortium of scientific researchers and partners from the seaweed industry, led by the non-profit organisation North Sea Farmers (NSF). It includes researchers from Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), Deltares and Silvestrum Climate Associates, seaweed extract manufacturers Algaia and marine contractors Van Oord.
Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) is granting €1.5 million to create the farm and carry out a year’s scientific research into carbon reduction through seaweed farming. The funding comes from its $100 million global Right Now Climate Fund, Amazon’s commitment to supporting nature-based solutions.
What does the North Sea Farm 1 project entail?
North Sea Farm 1, which claims to be the first of its kind, will be located between offshore wind turbines in the Dutch part of the North Sea. It will span 10 hectares, estimated to produce at least 6,000 kilograms of fresh seaweed in its first year.
It is scheduled to be installed and seeded in the autumn of 2023, with the first harvest expected in the spring of 2024. Amazon’s funding will also enable research into the carbon capture potential of seaweed farms during the operational year, modelling the impacts of large-scale seaweed farming.
Seaweed and carbon capture
According to the project developers, if seaweed farming were to occupy the entire space covered by wind farms in Europe, expected to be approximately 1 million hectares by 2040, it could reduce millions of tonnes of CO2 annually. The estimate is based on a scenario where industry in the Greater North Sea Region produces between 1-10 million tons of fresh seaweed per year.
Seaweed needs CO2 to grow and absorbs dissolved CO2 in the seawater. When used as an ingredient for food or cosmetics, as North Sea Farmers plans to do, then the absorbed CO2 will be released back into the environment so it would not count as captured emissions.
It is not yet clear for how long seaweed can store carbon, so its potential contribution to carbon removal at an industrial scale is still to be determined. For ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrasses or salt marshes, carbon is sequestered into mud or sediment in the nearby environment: as the plants grow and die, their decomposing matter is absorbed into the ground below.
Seaweed, instead, grows in rocky and exposed areas, making the carbon sequestration process much more difficult to track as the seaweed detritus is constantly released into the ocean, sequestering at sites on the seafloor and at unknown locations in the deep ocean. This aspect of farming will be investigated as part of the project.
The consortium will also attempt to physically measure this effect on the North Sea, around the North Sea Farm 1 project locations. The outcomes of this research are hoped to shed more light on whether this mechanism exists and if it can be used for carbon capture.
Dr Ana Queirós, senior marine and climate change ecologist at PML and research lead, said: “The carbon dioxide removal potential of the seaweed industry remains unproven and the challenge is to understand how seaweed can be used for carbon sequestration over the long term. There is a lot of interest in the growth of the industry but we need to have the evidence to determine the genuine Blue Carbon value of these habitats.”
Benefits and disadvantages of seaweed farming
According to North Sea Farmers, the main benefit is that the space between the wind turbines is unused. As such, the project is able to expand seaweed cultivation in the otherwise heavily used North Sea. It is also deemed a safe place to do so because boats will not sail through the area to avoid the wind turbines.
Seaweed farming and biodiversity
Seaweed can also be used to boost biodiversity in the area surrounding wind power projects. There are already ongoing studies assessing the effectiveness of this method, such as the partnership between Ørsted (CPH:ORSTED) and UK-based startup SeaGrown.
Effects on phytoplankton and acidification
Because it is still a relatively underresearched area of aquaculture, there are concerns that the negatives of seaweed farming may outweigh its positives. For instance, it could displace phytoplankton communities through its nutrient reallocation, or contribute to acidification when releasing dissolved organic carbon.
Seaweed farms could create new jobs
North Sea Farmers hopes that the findings of its research will play a role in scaling the industry. The farming and production of seaweed-based products are also expected to create jobs and business opportunities across Europe.
Eef Brouwers, manager of farming and technology at NSF, said: “Potentially, up to 85,000 full-time jobs could be created in the European seaweed sector by replicating North Sea Farm 1 across the North Sea, re-purposing the space amongst wind farms. These jobs would not only be in the farming process but also in the production and sales of seaweed-based products.”
In fact, the idea is to establish a vertically integrated company to ensure that there is a fair share of risk and profits across the supply chain. The project seems to come with a plethora of benefits: boosting the local economy, advancing the seaweed sector, exploring its potential for the carbon markets and creating synergy with the wind power sector. If it can indeed be replicated across Europe, it could represent a significant contribution to the bloc’s economy and climate goals.