South Australia – seaweed capital of the world!
It’s not a headline that would delight the tourism industry, but it brings a sparkle to the eyes of Flinders University’s Professor Wei Zhang, one of the world’s foremost researchers specialising in the commercialisation of seaweed.
“South Australia is unique! We’re a seaweed hotspot”, Professor Zhang explains with overflowing enthusiasm. “There are 1400 varieties of seaweed here, more diversity than anywhere else in the world. 15% of the recorded world red and brown seaweed species are found in the SE of the State alone, and nationally, over 60% of these seaweeds are only found in Australia”.
So why is he so excited about what most people regard as a beach pest?
The answer is simple: the global seaweed industry is estimated to be worth $15-$20 billion; the Chinese industry alone is worth $10 billion; currently the industry is only worth about $2 million in South Australia; and thanks to Professor Zhang, Flinders University has formed a business which is setting about exploiting this vast and renewable resource.
As Director of Flinders University’s internationally recognised Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development he organised an international conference at the Adelaide Convention Centre in 2012 which attracted more than 300 academics and potential investors from around the world. This followed many years of R&D into Australia’s renewable seaweed resource and how to commercialise its value.
But the Chinese connection was always the plan, and the collaborative arrangement with the Qingdao Gather Great Ocean Group Co. Ltd. was finalised after the conference.
“Flinders’ collaboration with Qingdao Ocean is based on both commercial and academic benefits,” Professor Zhang explained.
“It is a perfect example of applied science being mutually beneficial to both parties, it is complementary. Our Chinese partners began establishing a significant new industry in the South East of South Australia last year. This investment is creating jobs and already there are expansion plans, which will help the local economy even more. So it is a win for them, and it is a win for Flinders University as Qingdao has committed nearly $1 million in research funding to assist us in improving existing seaweed products such as fertiliser and animal feed, and developing new marine sugar products.
“The University has provided Qingdao Ocean with research and technology advice since they came to Australia and we now have a joint laboratory facility established within the University campus.
“Understanding each other’s needs was the most important part of forming our business arrangement. We are somewhat unique because our business has both academic and commercial components. In our negotiations with Qingdao Ocean we developed an understanding of each other’s strengths and capabilities in both these areas, so we clearly understood what each would be bringing to the table. And of course, when we had these understandings we could see the mutual benefits which would derive from working together.
“At the moment, the factory at Beachport is producing fertiliser for the Australian market. But the medium to long-term plan is to increase production so there is also an export market and to develop new products which have a greater value-add component.
“Production began on a small scale several years ago with a family owned business which Qingdao Ocean first bought an interest in, and then purchased outright.
“The planned expansion in the south east is underpinned by our joint research at Flinders. The objectives of this work are to better understand the seaweed resource; develop ‘green technology’ for processing seaweed in a way that is benign to the environment; and develop new, higher value-add products.
“Our collaboration is developing the industry further, generating much needed job growth in the south east, enhancing Flinders’ international reputation for marine R&D, and providing the University with much-needed research dollars”.
“Seaweed is just one raw product and we are barely scratching the surface of what could become a multi-billion dollar industry from our marine biological resources here”, he says. “We haven’t even started to look at sea grasses, which we also have in abundance and have vast commercial potential. Kingston Council spends a lot of money clearing its beaches of seagrass, which are an extremely valuable source of cellulose and sugars which can be used to produce ethanol, animal feed and fertiliser – to name just a few. We are developing a very good relationship with that Council to support the development of new industries in their district, introducing new technology and skills, and creating employment.
“In the future, the mariculture of seaweed can aid the multi-million dollar aquaculture and fisheries industry in South Australia through Integrated Multi-tropic Aquaculture (IMTA), which provides an environment for improved productivity and yields from aquaculture, reduces nutrient loads in the water and protects the marine habitat, and at the same time produces high-quality seaweed for the premium export seafood and value-added products market.
“The China market is vast. We have a vast, sustainable marine natural resource and it is common sense to bring the two together, which is exactly what we are starting to do with our Beachport project.”