Beyond introducing innovations to improve the productive output of existing fisheries and aquaculture, the MB-CRC aims to develop advanced manufacturing and high-value marine bioproducts. Current Australian enterprises represent a very modest economic value – about $4 billion compared to China’s marine bio-industries worth about $250 billion – but Professor Zhang sees an opportunity to rapidly accelerate growth in this sector.
Southern Australia has more than 1,400 species of seaweed – up to 60% being unique to our waters and representing 15% of the world’s red and brown seaweeds. For the MB-CRC, these seaweeds, plus marine microalgae and filter-feeding animals, represent new sources of marine biomass which, through the development of advanced manufacturing technologies and processing, lay the foundation to generate high-value marine bioproducts.
Sustainable nutrition is a pressing issue, with questions of how adequate protein supplies can meet increasing demand from a rising global population. As a viable alternative to animal production, fast-growing, protein-rich microalgae can be produced in controlled environments, making them ideal candidates for meat-protein substitution that could build into a thriving export industry.
However, functional foods and nutritional products represent only a portion of this high-value bioproducts market; other great growth opportunities lay in pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, agrochemicals, bioactive feeds, cosmetics, marine bio-plastics and emerging bio-synthetic building materials.
“It’s simple – by concentrating our efforts on high-value products, we can make more profitability from constrained supplies and with less effort,” says Professor Zhang. “The size and scale of these opportunities, in combination with their environmental sustainability, will encourage people to develop more marine bioproducts businesses.”
High-value marine biomaterials are also directly applicable to the medical sector – especially the use of marine biodegradable plastics to create single-use items such as masks, gloves and sterile dressings, as well as 3D printing of materials for tissue and organ replacement. “These are safe, bio-compatible and non-toxic materials, and they will be recognised as a perfect solution for meeting the enormous demands of hospitals and medical centres.”
Professor Zhang says the wider application of marine bioproducts can also contribute significantly to the push for a carbon-neutral society. “Red algae added to animal feed improves their digestion and can dramatically decrease an animal’s methane emissions, reducing greenhouse gas problems,” he says. “We keep finding more and more ways that marine bioproducts provide unexpected functions and benefits.”
Professor Zhang’s new role will be Research Director of the MB-CRC, as the Flinders team grows to about a dozen key researchers, supported by up to 30 research students. Their aim will be to propel a $1.5 billion per annum delivery to industry and to stimulate job growth toward 10,000 a year by 2030.
Through pioneering and driving this research in Australia, Professor Zhang believes Flinders University will further its international reputation in this important and emerging field of scientific and technological development.
He reflects that persistence has paid off.