SEAWEED harvesting boats could be a common sight in Scotland's inshore waters if new research into farming the algae leads to it being sold on the open market for use as a green fuel source.

The substance is at the centre of a major European research programme which has developed a cutting-edge false sea bed on which the substance can grow before it is caught in the nets of trawlers.

Devised as part of a three-year project, AT~SEA, the algae sits on a textile mesh which has been undergoing trials in inshore waters off the coasts of Norway, Ireland and Scotland near Oban. It will encourage seaweed growth which can then be harvested several times a year.

Seaweed's potential as a biofuel is driving the new research into commercial harvesting, in an effort to reduce our chronic dependence on oil.

Bert Groenendaal of Belgian textile manufacturer Sioen Industries, the co-ordinator of the AT~SEA project, said: "The AT~SEA project aims to make mass cultivation of seaweeds in Europe's near-shore locations technically and economically feasible by creating textile substrates that can endure the harsh conditions they are exposed to as the seaweed grows."

Research into the development of economically and environmentally viable production of biofuels, methane and ethanol, from seaweed has been on-going for some years

However, despite its potential value, mass harvesting of wild growing seaweed is not economically viable in Europe partly because labour costs are high. Harvesting of a beach-cast seaweed is seen as detrimental to coastal ecosystems and is unlikely to be reliably sustainable on a large scale.

Following the trials the 11 project partners, which include businesses, industry and research institutes, will assess which textiles offer the optimal performance across Europe. On a tight schedule, these results will lead to the manufacture of a second generation of specifically designed textiles in time for the start of the next growing season this coming autumn.

Dr Phil Kerrison, who is a lead researcher at the Scottish Association of Marine Science Dunstaffnage vase north of Oban, is working on the project. He said "Rather than growing seaweed on ropes we effectively have a sheet which is stretched out over say a 10m by 10m area. We have a sequence of these which are attached.

"The long-term plan would be to have them hauled directly on to harvesting. Then possibly the sheets could be reseeded with the next batch of seaweed. We want to try to automate it as much as possible. We would want to have a few crops a year so it is always growing on a textile which hopefully can be kept in place for 10 years in the same location. I would imagine it being in two to five metres of water although it could be grown further offshore."

He said different textiles were being tested from those that resemble meshes used in gardening to very fine fabrics. "In fact, one of the textiles we have been testing this year because of its roughness is carpet, which gives a good surface for the seaweed to attach to," Mr Kerrison added.

He said it was the potential for biofuels which was driving the project with it already established ethanol could be mixed with petrol up to about 20%. However, there were other higher-value products to be derived from seaweed for the likes of the medical industry, which would make the process even more cost-effective.