Floating Farms

I always have a soft spot for illustrations of future visions. This image of seaweed carriers is no exception. A company called Seaweed Energy Solutions (SES) has developed and patented seaweed growing technology that it hopes will make possible the cultivation of seaweed on a vastly larger scale than we have seen thus far.

Mass Seaweed Carriers Source: SES

Mass Seaweed Carriers
Source: SES


Seaweed has so many uses – as I said on a recent post, some are calling it the potato of the 21st century when it comes to feeding large numbers of people. And it can be cultivated without the use of expensive land and water for irrigation.

Which brings me back to the SES floating farms. The goal for this kind of industrial seaweed farming is to grow enough seaweed to make biofuel. Ethanol, to be exact, using the high level of carbohydrates in the sea plants. It’s not the first time at the biofuel circus for seaweed enthusiasts.

Seagrapes (Botryocladia pseudodichotoma). From a great new book, An Ocean Garden. Photo: Josie Iselin

Seagrapes (Botryocladia pseudodichotoma). From a great new book, An Ocean Garden.
Photo: Josie Iselin

Like algae, seaweed has long been the subject of renewable energy attention, for the same reasons it might be an alternative potato: It doesn’t compete with other food crops for land space or resources and it practically grows itself given the right foundation.

Regions with lots of coastline and little arable land could use a prolific cash crop like that.

I don’t know enough about the topic to say whether there aren’t environmental arguments to be made against the industrialization of seaweed cultivation, although the mass production of any mono-crop usually brings with it some concerns. I don’t know at what stage the seaweed-to-fuel processing technology finds itself, or what distribution channels are already in place.

Maybe, as with many future visions, the idea of seaweed as fuel will float away in time without becoming reality.

Still, I deeply appreciate a technological design that so nicely reflects the very crop it is meant to support.




Seaweed Squares


Seaweed Farms - Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia. (Digital Globe/Caters News)

Seaweed Farms – Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia. Click on the photo for the full image.
Photo: Digital Globe/Caters News

When I think of oceans, I think of movement and flow.

When I think of oceanic plant life, I have in my mind an image of free-form fields of seaweed in constant motion.

When life grows for itself, it tends to grow in loose configurations. When I think of tilled land fields, like the ones in my area, I think of grain rising in squared off parameters or the pristine circles of pivot irrigation.

In any case, when we grow for ourselves, we usually grow in geometric patterns. So the multitude of underwater seaweed rectangles in the image above, mirrored in the multitude of angular human dwellings on the neighboring land,  shouldn’t surprise me at all.

Still, these tidy plots, an oceanic harvest of what is being hailed by some as ‘this century’s potato‘ for its farming, nutrition and economic potential, look odd.

Illustration of seaweed farming. Source: Tracy Saxby/Integration and Application Nework

Illustration of seaweed farming.
Source: Tracy Saxby/Integration and Application Nework

Seaweed cultivation has been around for hundreds of years, most of that past spent simply, well, harvesting wild seaweed. Or drifting long ropes to attract seaweed growth, and then pulling in the ropes.

Methods have been improving, but what remains to be seen is if we can manage to farm seaweed without doing what we sometimes do to the places we farm: hacking down everything that was there before to replace it with only the plants we want in tight geometric configurations.

The ocean has a different set of rules from the land, but seaweed farming done right can improve biodiversity, improve air and water quality and feed a lot of people and animals, and maybe even provide a source of biofuel. More on that in a later post.

Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)

Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)