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From tackling climate change, powering cars and treating COVID-19: 26 uses for seaweed

Seaweed has had many uses over the years, from thatching rooves to fuelling cars.

With many different food products now made from seaweed, you may have even eaten it without knowing.

Here are 26 of the ways seaweed can be used:

Tackling climate change

1. Seaweed grown in Scotland has been used to power a car. In 2019 scientists in Denmark drove 50 miles using biofuel made from kelp.

2. Growing seaweed can help fight climate change because, like all plants, it takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it grows. In fact, according to some estimates, an acre of seaweed can absorb five times as much carbon as the same area of forest.

3. Cattle are one of the major producers of methane which, like CO2, contributes to global warming. But seaweed can act as a methane reducer, and so adding seaweed to cattle feed could help reduce the amount they emit.

4. Researchers are using seaweed to create new bioplastics. These can then be used to create biodegradable food packaging and containers.

5. Seaweed can be used as a source of ‘platform chemicals’, which is the name given to chemicals used to make other products. This is particularly important as many of our current platform chemicals come from fossil fuel production.

6. The world’s oceans are becoming more acidic, because of higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in them. Adding seaweed plants could help tackle this, as they release oxygen, which reduces the acidity of the water.

7. Seaweed can also cause ‘marine snow’. This is when organic matter falls to the seabed from the upper levels of the water. Scientists think this could tie up carbon at the bottom of the ocean for more than a hundred years, although more research is needed into exactly how much carbon is stored this way.

8. Because it takes in minerals from the water as it grows seaweed could be used to help treat agricultural wastewater by reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds in it before it is released into nature.

Health benefits

9. Research is currently ongoing into the antiviral properties of seaweed, with an extract from the algae among drugs being tested as a possible COVID-19 treatment.

10. High concentrations of iodine, which is important for thyroid function, are found in seaweed and is one of the health benefits of eating seaweed in small doses.

11. Seaweed has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and could be used in future medicines to reduce swelling.

12. Alginate is extracted from brown algae and can be used as an emulsifier in a similar way to agar. But it also has medical applications, having been used for wound healing, drug delivery, and tissue engineering.

13. Scientific studies have suggested that eating seaweed may help people lower their blood pressure, possibly due to the fact it contains high levels of fibre and other nutrients.

14. Seaweed contains several vitamins and minerals that are important for human health (as well as iodine), it’s therefore often used to create health supplements.

In industry

15. Seaweed has been used as a fertiliser for hundreds of years with farmers collecting it from beaches and spreading it on their fields, where it slowly releases its nutrients into the soil.

16. During the First World War seaweed was harvested and burned to produce potash (a potassium rich organic compound), one of the key components in the manufacture of gunpowder.

17. Seaweed farms can provide a nursery for fish to live in until they reach maturity, enhancing the marine habitat and increasing its biodiversity.

18. The soil improver biochar can be made from seaweed, by carbonising it under high temperatures. It can then be used instead of a chemical fertiliser.

19. On the island of Læsø in Denmark a seaweed called eelgrass has been used to thatch the roofs of houses. The practice began hundreds of years ago after the islands ran out of more traditional sources of thatch.

20. Animal feed has often been made from seaweed, with the plant milled down into a powder before being fed to livestock

21. Seaweed has also been investigated as a source of bio-yarn, with companies investigating whether it could be used to replace textiles like polyester in clothing.

In food and cosmetics

22. The cosmetics industry has been including seaweed in its supply chain for years, with face washes, soaps, and creams among the many products to have added it to their list of ingredients.

23. The thickening agent agar is made from seaweed. You may even have eaten it without knowing, as it’s sometimes used in ice cream.

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24. Proteins can be extracted from seaweed to use in meat-free food products, such as veggie burgers or sausages.

25. Scottish gin distillers have used seaweed as a botanical to give their drinks a subtle salty flavour.

26. Dried seaweed can be used as a flavouring, replacing salt. Crisps, cereal bars, and bread have all been made this way already.

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