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Seaweed developed at UCSD helps reduce methane emissions from cows

Seaweed Cultivation Tanks at UCSD
Posted at 5:34 PM, Dec 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-29 20:34:54-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — After three years of study, a team of scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD is close to bringing their revolutionary product to battle climate change into the marketplace.

In short, studies show the seaweed they developed helps reduce the amount of damaging methane emitted when cows that eat the seaweed belch.

“Methane, as we know, is a really horrible greenhouse gas. It’s 30 times more potent than CO2," says Dr. Jennifer Smith, who is leading the project.

When ABC 10News first visited Smith's lab in 2019 she had grown a specific type of red seaweed in her lab that early studies showed reduced emissions. She's then, she's figured out how to grow the seaweed on a larger scale, including inside several large tanks on the UCSD campus in La Jolla.

“You essentially just pump seawater from offshore through some filters. You have your system of tanks and you basically just need sunlight and seawater to cultivate the seaweed," Smith says.

Smith is in the final stages of getting her lab certified as organic. She's also working with a San Diego start-up company to build out the business side of the venture. They are hopeful that at some point in early 2022, they will be ready to start working with California farms to use their seaweed supplement.

It only takes a few tablespoons of powdered seaweed, which gets mixed in with the cow feed. The seaweed seems to make the cow's digestive process more efficient, so the cow's body can use more of what the cow eats, and converts less of the feed into waste products, especially methane.

Smith's team expects emissions from cow belches to be cut by more than 50%. Research has also shown that consuming the small amount of seaweed needed from the product Smith has produced does not change the flavor of dairy or beef from the cows

“The idea that Scripps could come in and provide a treatment for their food that would prevent the production of methane, that could be really transformational," says San Diego Congressmember Scott Peters, who helped co-author a bill signed into law by President Biden this past summer to help tackle methane emissions. “If you could get it out of the mix, you’d have an immediate effect on the rate of climate change. Today about 25% of warming is a result of methane.”

Peters also says there are myriad business opportunities for the United States to become a leader in green energy and climate change technology. He says projects like this one are important because they can make a big impact on battling climate change without requiring major changes to the economy or eliminating beef and dairy from Americans' diets.

“If we can keep our standard of life like it is while we reduce methane and carbon dioxide emissions, we can prove to the rest of the world that this is the way to go," he says.