A llan Koay writes in thestar.com about a Universiti Malaya research project paving the way for the commercial production of paper pulp and bioethanol from seaweed. The Algae Research Lab at the university in Kuala Lumpur houses machines — all manufactured in South Korea — for making pulp from a species of red seaweed known as gelidium. Prof Dr Phang Siew Moi, director of the university’s Institute Of Ocean And Earth Sciences, and her colleagues and students are researching the properties of red algae, as well as its capacity for being turned into pulp and bioethanol.
They brought the red algae, native to South Korea, to Malaysia to see if it can be successfully cultivated in that climate. This is with the view toward creating a viable seaweed pulp and bioethanol industry, a green endeavor with huge commercial potential.
“Our first objective was to see whether we could introduce this Korean species here and mass-cultivate it,” said Phang, who is leading the project together with her colleague, Datin Seri Prof Dr Aishah Salleh. “The second objective was then to see whether we could produce paper from the fibers, and to produce bioethanol from the agar.”
The process by which pulp is produced from seaweed is far more environmentally friendly than the process of making wood pulp. “You save on energy and the use of chemicals,” Phang said. “For wood pulp, you need to cook it at 180°C for eight hours, and you need to add sodium hydroxide. To get pulp from red seaweed, you only need to cook it at 100°C for two hours, and you use only water. The reason is that the seaweed has no lignin.
The project is a joint research project between Universiti Malaya, the Fisheries Department and South Korean company Pegasus International Inc. that was established in 2004.
At a symposium on seaweed and aquaculture Phang met Pegasus founder You Hack Churl, who had been looking for interested parties to jointly realize the pulp-making potential of red algae. In 2003 he had stumbled upon the peculiar properties of red algae when he was advised to eat healthily due to his high blood pressure. He started consuming agar — made from red algae of the gelidium species — for lunch.
One day he accidentally dropped a pot of the boiling jelly and while trying to scrape it off the floor, found that it had set into a thin, vinyl-like film. “At that moment, I had an idea that it could be made into film or paper,” said You. “I carried out a simple experiment in my kitchen, then later applied for a patent and together with a friend, founded Pegasus.”
It is all in the fibers, says Phang. The seaweed fibers are fine, of equal lengths and smooth. Wood fibers are, in contrast, coarse, of unequal lengths and thick. “When you make paper from (seaweed pulp), you get very smooth paper with high opacity. The paper from wood fibers is very coarse and you need to use fillers. With red seaweed, you don’t need a filler because the material contains some agar.”
Seaweed fibers contain hollow spaces internally, which makes them very absorbent. Thus, the fibers are especially good for making diapers. The material can also be used for making cigarettes, face-masks and speaker cones.
The seaweed project was identified by Agensi Inovasi Malaysia as one of 42 innovative business opportunities in 2012. A workshop was held in Universiti Malaya two months ago where 25 representatives from nine companies attended. The Science, Technology And Innovation Ministry was also involved.
“It is sustainable,” says Phang. “There is no conflict with tropical rainforests because it grows in the sea. And as it grows, it photosynthesises and removes carbon from the environment. So if you have a business cultivating large areas of seaweed, you’re removing carbon and can, in fact, sell carbon credits and make money. And seaweed is very good at removing (excessive) nutrients from water, which helps clean the sea.”
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