Dr Stefan Kraan, manager of the Irish Seaweed Centre at the National University of Ireland Galway, said Ireland, with its rich, sustainable, seaweed resources, is poised to become an important player in the next generation of biofuel production.
He was addressing over 400 delegates at the annual conference of the International Society for Applied Phycology, the scientific study of algae.
Ireland boasts 16 commercially useful seaweed species, with additional ones being added as more research is carried out.
The conference was told that Ireland’s location off Western Europe, surrounded by clean seas, is a major selling point to the world market. Current uses of seaweeds in Ireland are as foods and food supplements, fertilisers, liquid seaweed extracts, soil conditioners and animal feed supplements.
Seaweed is also used as raw material for cosmetics, body-care products, sea water and seaweed treatments, medical preparations, biotechnology and biomedicine.
Dr Kraan said seaweed has long been investigated as a potential source of bioethanol, which is typically made from crops such as sugar cane and corn, but technological barriers remain to its commercial use.
“Algae do not have the negative image of terrestrial biomass resources, which are said to be responsible for higher food prices, impacting on water use, biodiversity and destruction of rain forest.
Professor Michael A Borowitzka, Murdoch University, Australia, who delivered the keynote address, said, compared to other bioenergy crops, such as rape seed, canola, peanut, oil palm, there are a number of species of algae that have higher areal productivities, higher oil content and that can grow in saline waters.
Professor Borowitzka said for biofuel production the algal biomass needs to be produced at a cost of around US$1 or less per kg.