LIDAO, SHANDONG PROVINCE, CHINA, 2016

A number of small fishing boats docked alongside a jetty just south of Lidao with their cargo of seaweed

Steinmetz

© George Steinmetz / Contrasto

 

From cooking, medicine and cosmetics to sludge and fuels, algae, including seaweed, have numerous uses. They were among the first organisms to appear on Earth, have a simple structure and hold many surprises that are now being studied by scientists in ever greater depth. As early as the time of Pliny the Elder (1st century AD), algae were known to be useful to treat gout, skin rashes, gastritis and intestinal and liver disorders. Today they are used in cosmetics, beauty treatments and spas. As a food, they are a source of vitamin B12 and Japan is the country with the highest consumption of seaweed (300,000 tonnes per year), although a traditional seaweed bread is also found in both Scotland and Norway. From an environmental point of view, as well as providing around 40% of the oxygen we breathe, algae also play a very important role as carbon dioxide sinks. Traces of macroalgae have been found in samples from the deep oceans, and it is believed that carbon reaching depths greater than 1,500 metres can be considered permanently “sequestered”.
As far as energy use is concerned, they are an interesting source of alternative fuels, so much so that in recent years considerable investments have been made in pilot projects to exploit them to best advantage. Today, 100 kilos of algae produce just over 15 litres of biofuel, but the yield is increasing rapidly thanks to new technologies. They are increasingly being used in eco-design objects, natural and sustainable mattresses and even paper, confirmation that algae is a source of innovative resources unimaginable until recently. It is up to us to make the most of them in the hope of finding an eco-friendly solution to some of the pressing challenges facing modern man.

Filippo Rossato