The abundant forests of kelp around our shores may well help solve the energy crisis and create a whole new industry in its wake.

There is nothing new about exploiting kelp's biochemical properties. For centuries, it has been used as a fertiliser by the people of the Highlands and Islands wrestling with miserly soil but, with growing concern about finite resources and the search for renewable sources of energy, the Scottish Association of Marine Sciences (Sams) is turning its attention to the humble seaweed.

Sams operates from its Dunstaffnage marine laboratory north of Oban, a largely unheralded facility. Under the leadership of its director Professor Graham Shimmield, it performs a unique combination of roles, from a collaborative centre of the Natural Environment Research Council and a business incubator and diving centre to being an academic partner in the University of the Highlands and Islands project (UHI).

Its seaweed project is being pursued by Dr Symon Dworjanyn, an Australian marine biologist who has come to work on an integrated aquaculture project for Sams. This involves looking at what secondary crop could be grown near fish farms on the nutrients from fish excrement in the water.

Dr Dworjanyn and his colleagues are concentrating on sea urchins and seaweeds. The former are grown for their roe, long a favourite of the French and Japanese.

He said: "With seaweed, which can grow from a few centimetres to several metres between the winter and late spring, we are also looking for possible sources of foods and extracts for nutraceuticals or cosmetics. But we have also started to look at seaweed as biofuels. The UK and the EU are committed to quotas for biofuels but it is not obvious how they are going to meet these because of lack of available land. Scotland is the epicentre for large kelps in the UK and there is real potential they could produce either methane or ethanol by using things called bio-digestives. We are currently doing a study for the Crown Estate to see if this could be commercially viable. There is a system in Japan that is about to go into production using methane to generate electricity."

But Sams is a lot more than a research facility, albeit one with 60 doctors of science apparently researching everything from global warming and renewable energy to alien species.

It delivers Scotland's only BSc (Hons) Marine Science (with Arctic Studies) which is accredited by Aberdeen University.

Back in Argyll they also train for a professional diving qualification, as Sams hosts the National Facility for Scientific Diving. There are 25 graduate students at Sam working for their PhDs.

Increasingly, Sams has become a badge of pride for the local area.

Ken Abernethy, area director of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) Argyll and the Isles, underlines this: "HIE has invested significantly in Sams and we look forward to that partnership continuing. We are immensely proud to have this energetic research institute and the foundations of the UK's nascent marine bio-industry set on the shore of a bay in North Argyll. In terms of potential for both social and economic development, it really doesn't get much more exciting."