Tallinn University of Technology

The sustainable blue bioeconomy has great ambitions and challenges, and it also offers opportunities to create new business models. With sustainable management, the living environment in the sea is preserved and also supports the restoration of a good environmental condition. In February, three Estonian universities - Kuressaare College of Tallinn University of Technology, the Estonian Maritime Institute of the University of Tartu and the Agricultural and Environmental Institute of the University of Life Sciences discussed what can be done with blue bioresources together with entrepreneurs in Kuressaare.

Merit Kindsigo, director of Kuressaare College | Photos: Kaire Kaljurand

merepõhi Vilsandi lähistel
Sea bed near Vilsandi.

In addition to potential areas for offshore wind farms, the area around Saaremaa is biologically suitable for algae and clam farming. Clam farming allows nutrients to be removed from the sea (clams feed on microalgae and remove nitrogen and phosphorus from seawater in the process), while producing healthy food. Estonian scientists have also developed a technology to remove meat from seashells. The refinement and promotion of the use of clam meat is still to be tackled, as it is not a common food in Estonians’ diet.

In addition to fish, red algae (Furcellaria lumbricalis) has also been fished from local waters for decades, from which Est-Agar AS in Kärla produces furcellaran. The Tiina candy of Kalev is one of the classic examples of its use, having been produced for at least the last 50 years with the same recipe and raw materials. At the same time, the company plans to extract other valuable compounds from the red algae to make better use of the raw material. Est-Agar AS has set a target of at least 90% refining of algae. Multi-extraction allows the recovery of furcellaran, pigments, proteins, and natural antioxidants from red algae. Grow pots can be produced from the treated algae mass, but the technology is under development.

Other potentially innovative uses of algae include bio-glue production, use as a filler in building materials, and seed coating technology – coating seeds with natural fertiliser to stimulate growth.

In any case, market interest in red algae is booming, so research and experiments on how to grow it in the sea are ongoing. Different technologies and designs are under consideration. It is good to know that every tonne of algae has consumed about 4 kg of nitrogen and about 2 kg of phosphorus from the sea to grow – every kilogram removed is a small win for the Baltic Sea.

The sea nourishes, covers, and beautifies

The refinement of raw materials of Saare Kala Tootmine OÜ is now so good that, according to sales manager Timo Pärna, only the skin and bones of all the trout they grow in the Baltic Sea are currently not being put to good use. As the company’s sales manager is a master chef, it’s only natural to try and refine everything to the last detail and to experiment with innovative solutions with an open mind. Experiments are currently underway to produce fish skin crisps. Fish bones are exported, but they could also be refined in Estonia, either as a powdered food supplement for pets or, for example, as a natural glue.

However, fish skin does not have to be refined only for food or feed. Thicker fish skins (e.g. trout, salmon) can be used to make artistic objects. Fish skin can be tanned as successfully as animal skin, and making jewellery, belts or handbags from it is one of the best examples of a creative circular economy. The fish parking workshops have been included in the ‘2024 –-Blue Year’ event programme at TalTech Kuressaare College.

Common reed (Phragmites australis) is a good energy plant, but that is not all. Root biomass can be ground and compressed to produce briquettes or pellets with uniform properties, reed harvested during the growing season can be fermented to produce biogas, and young rhizomes are edible. Reed can also be used successfully to make the already famous reed roofs or natural drinking straws, as well as mats, gardens, toys, used in its un-crushed form as insulating material or in its crushed form as a filler in building materials. For example, reed-clay bricks are a good example of the ecological co-existence of reed and clay.

OÜ Valsimaja, a company engaged in the extraction of Mullutu-Suurlahe therapeutic mud in Saaremaa, and adding value to it, has come to the conclusion that consumers are increasingly demanding ecological, biodegradable and otherwise environmentally friendly products. Therapeutic mud is currently used in Estonia to make face masks, soaps, body scrubs, creams, shampoos, etc., but there is a lack of innovative, zero-footprint products with ecological co-existence. This is why OÜ Valsimaja has started to develop a new range of therapeutic mud products. The first experiment is a face mask of finely ground therapeutic mud with a biodegradable algae net.

The future is up to us

The future lies in synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. Synthetic biology is an important part of the future bioeconomy, which will undoubtedly reach the sea. Biological systems are designed by working with their DNA sequence. They can just as well be thought of as biological computing systems that can be improved not only to increase the efficiency of their functioning, but also to develop intelligence. More perfect, faster, more versatile functions and properties have the potential to affect both the biological community and the ecosystem as a whole.

Scientists working on DNA and algorithms in parallel could one day result in a ‘smart alga’ that, for example, eats microplastics, moves to another location when the chemical composition of the water becomes unsuitable and ‘shoots’ toxic charges at the enemy. In the worst cases, it can be a person who does not foresee tomorrow today and (often out of ignorance) tries to rule the world.