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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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New Tech Could Turn Seaweed Into Biofuel

In the future, we may not look up to the sun for energy, but down into the ocean’s depths.

This month the U.S. Department of Energy announced an investment of nearly $1.5 million in projects to develop renewable energy from Hawaiian seaweed, following large investments in other parts of the nation in a new push toward the potentially groundbreaking development of seaweed-based biofuels.

The $1.5 million will go toward establishing two large-scale offshore seaweed farms for development and production of biofuels. Of this hefty sum, $995,978 goes to Honolulu’s Makai Ocean Engineering for the development of an ocean simulating model to facilitate offshore seaweed farm design, Kailua-Kona’s Kampachi Farms receives $500,000 to develop an offshore macroalgae farm and test out different seaweed harvesting methods in search of the most efficient model.

The recent investments in Hawaii are just one part of a recent energy trend toward biofuels. The DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program is developing nationwide projects to establish a large-scale macroalgae agricultural industry under the under the Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER) program.

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In Massachusetts, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was awarded a whopping $5.7 million from ARPA-E to fund two projects to further advance mass cultivation of seaweed on an industrial scale. $3.7 million of this will go toward the development of a breeding program for sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), utilizing cutting-edge gene sequencing and genomic resources for the most accurate and efficient selective breeding possible, resulting in a 20 to 30 percent improvement over wild plants. For this endeavor, WHOI will work in conjunction with  the University of Alaska Fairbanks, another MARINER project funding recipient that is currently developing scale model seaweed farms capable of producing sugar kelp for less than $100 per dry metric ton.

The other $2 million given to WHOI goes toward developing a self-sufficient underwater observation system to monitor these large-scale seaweed farms for long periods of time without human intervention. This revolutionary technology is being created by a team from the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering department.

This huge push in funding and biofuel investments comes in the hope that seaweed could soon be used to power our homes and vehicles. According to ARPA-E, the U.S. could potentially produce 300 million dry metric tons of combined brown and red seaweed per year. Converted to biofuel, this yield could supply 10 percent of the nation’s annual transportation energy demand—a game-changing amount.

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Up to this point, domestic cultivation of macroalgae has exclusively been for human consumption, and the majority of seaweed consumed by humans and animals in the U.S. is sourced from wild harvests or imported from other countries with seaweed-farming operations already underway. The ramping-up of local production isn’t just an amazing innovation for domestic biofuel sources, but it’s also a huge relief for wild seaweed beds being over-harvested for local consumption. The seaweed push would also create new jobs, boosting the economic health of many working waterfronts.

With the recent cash influx to create the necessary technology and infrastructure, seaweed—never before farmed in large scales in the U.S.—could quickly replace corn as the country’s primary source of biofuel. This would be a welcome change, as seaweed farms require none of the synthetic fertilizers, huge swaths of land and vast quantities of freshwater that corn cultivation needs.

Like oil and gas, biofuels are also generally composed of hydrocarbons, however, they’re ultimately much closer to the carbon-neutral line because they naturally consume carbon dioxide as they grow. Seaweed is especially efficient in this regard, as it grows significantly faster than terrestrial plants and is able to store large amounts of CO2 in its structure.

The underwater future of energy is well underway. Expect to see cleaner, greener, seaweed-based biofuels in the U.S. marketplace in the next few years.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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