Startup MACROCARBON to cultivate Sargassum seaweed in the Canary Islands

Sargassum macroalgae are able of producing new raw materials for the chemical industry while fixing large amounts of CO2.
The macroalga Sargassum natans belongs to the genus of the so-called gulfweed (Sargassum). Photo: Franziska Elmer / Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI).
The macroalga Sargassum natans belongs to the genus of the so-called gulfweed (Sargassum). Photo: Franziska Elmer / Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI).

A spin-off of the Alfred Wegener Institute, the Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), and Carbonwave, the company MACROCARBON has just been founded in Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, Spain, to develop algae farms in which the macroalgae Sargassum will be cultivated. The new company aims to use the ocean's natural resources to develop new climate-friendly raw materials. As founder and CEO Mar Fernández-Méndez explains to WeAreAquaculture, the idea is "to use Sargassum to try to help decarbonize or defossilize the chemical industry".

Sargassum, easy to grow and very efficient

The new startup MACROCARBON is heir to the 'C-CAUSA' project initiated in January 2022 by several committed researchers from AWI, Carbonwave, GEOMAR, Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, and the start-up Seafields. All of them joined forces with the support of BASF. A few months later, in May 2022, the project won a grant as part of the 'Carbon to Value Challenge' of the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation (SPRIND, in its German acronym) that enabled them to develop a novel value chain.

This value chain enables the production of biological raw materials and renewable carbon for the chemical industry in open sea aquaculture farms from the cultivation of floating macroalgae (Sargassum fluitans and natans). With this, the company aims to contribute to the decarbonization of the chemical industry by creating products that store carbon for long periods of time.

Dr. Mar Fernández-Méndez, founder and CEO of MACROCARBON, explains it this way: "MACROCARBON will develop integrated supply chains for the cultivation and processing of Sargassum seaweed. Because Sargassum itself floats, we do not need expensive longlines to be stretched out in the water for this purpose. In addition, the algae grows quickly and thrives in many regions". In fact, Sargassum absorbs CO2 very efficiently through natural photosynthesis and does not need many nutrients to grow compared to other macroalgae species such as saccharin or laminaria – "kelp, which is the most fashionable nowadays", she clarifies -.

As she explains to WeAreAquaculture, the ultimate goal, the commercial application of this process is to create bio-naphtha. As of today, naphtha – which is the precursor used by the chemical industry to basically make any plastics, ropes, and other products we use in our daily lives – usually comes from fossil fuels. "By producing naphtha from a source that is not fossil energy, i.e. not oil and gas, you can be giving companies in the chemical industry the opportunity to switch to renewable sources of biomass". Coming from the sea, this biomass requires no land space, no fresh water, and no extra nutrients.

A new company with strong backing

Although of German origin, the company has chosen Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands, Spain, as its headquarters. Its location in the subtropical Atlantic, where Sargassum thrives, and access to the Oceanic Platform of the Canary Islands (PLOCAN) are the main reasons for this easily accessible location with the necessary offshore marine conditions. The platform is not only suitable for experiments and large-scale testing of pilot processing plants, but it is EU territory, which allows the company to continue to have access to SPRIND funding. Furthermore, according to MACROCARBON, the Canary Islands offer an attractive start-up "ecosystem" in the context of the so-called Blue Bioeconomy.

Despite having split to create this new company, MACROCARBON will continue to collaborate with Seafields, Carbonwave, and the Alfred Wegener Institut. The first, Seafields – of which Dr. Fernández-Méndez is also a co-founder – is trying to use Sargassum to sequester carbon by transforming it into balls that sink to the bottom of the sea, at four thousand meters, to capture CO2. Carbonwave, for its part, has been working for several years in the Caribbean area, in Mexico in particular, trying to valorize Sargassum biomass, and has already manufactured some products such as a multiplier for creams, fertilizers for plants, or vegan leather.

"These companies, both Seafields, and Carbonwave, are our parent companies, let's say, from which the spin-off has come, and obviously the Alfred Wegener Institute, which is where I work as a researcher, so we have brought together the best of each one to create this company to have everything in one: the farms, which in this case are stationary; the production of the bio-naphtha; and, obviously, all the environmental impact research, which we will do with the Alfred Wegener Institute and other research institutes", the founder and CEO of MACROCARBON tells us.

Mar Fernández-Méndez presents MACROCARBON at the Investor Day in Munich. Photo: Eberhard Sauter / Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI).

These are not the only supports for the new company. As Mar Fernández-Méndez points out, for her, as a marine biologist, founding a company is an exciting but also challenging process, one in which she is grateful to have SPRIND's support when it comes to facing investors. "It's good that we are accompanied in this by a dedicated SPRIND coach and the AWI technology transfer office", she says. The numerous inquiries she received at the Investor Day held in Munich at the end of March, show that the concept is interesting not only from an ecological but also from an economic point of view.

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