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Seaweed can bite into $100bn+ markets (and save a lot of carbon too)
Part 3 of our Exploring Seaweed Series
The $100bn+ markets
Seaweed is a mainstay of Asian diets. In Japan, on average more than 30 different types of seaweed are consumed 5x a week, but such consumption seems unlikely in Western countries. The total farmgate value of cultivated seaweeds today is ~$6bn (30mt @ $200/t). Although edible seaweeds account for 85% of the crop by volume, they account for about a third of the crop by value. Three different hydrocolloids (carrageenan, agar and alginate) are worth roughly $3bn, whilst the remainder comes from a range of nascent products including biostimulants, specialty chemicals, polymers and supplements.
If this new industry is to thrive, we need to use new green manufacturing techniques to rapidly develop new and better seaweed-based products for existing end markets. There are ample opportunities to use seaweed as a substitute input for the production of products such as pulp and polymers. Then there are opportunities to expand existing solutions such as biostimulant fertilizers and nutritional supplements for animals into large scale, mainstream solutions. Finally there are many unexplored opportunities to develop pharmaceutical compounds, nutraceuticals and cosmetics in the health and wellness space. Together these offer multiple, established billion dollar market opportunities for seaweed-based products.
3, 2, 1, Liftoff!
Naturally, not all seaweed-based products are ready for prime time. In some areas, biopolymers for example, scientists need to develop breakthroughs to generate materials that can compete technically and economically with the established behemoths like PET. In other areas such as the speciality chemical laminarin, companies need to work with healthcare customers to develop the right product features to meet performance and safety requirements.
A rough mapping of existing known products - and there are probably many more as yet undiscovered applications - to a simplified version of NASA’s technology readiness scale provides some insight as to the maturity of current products.
There remains lots of work to be done to grow existing markets and open up new opportunities.
It’s economics, stupid
But given the significant market opportunity, why haven't seaweed-based products taken off? In short, the answer is: it’s still too expensive to harvest and refine biomass into high performance products. In the next post we will dive into the challenges of turning raw biomass into a saleable product at scale and identify how to overcome them to create a virtuous cycle to drive a new bio-based economy.