Seaweed Could Be New Form of Biofuel

The slimy ocean strands that tangle onto your body while swimming may have a new purpose.  Researchers are turning towards kelp and seaweed as a viable fuel option in replacing biofuel made from crops.  The new form of biofuel would provide a solution to alleviate over-farming and protect freshwater sources.

Crops for biofuel have long been controversial and opinions are siding more frequently with the practice being a bad idea.  Farming as a fuel option puts stress on the land as scarcity of an area competes for farming purposes.  But, the practice also raises already high commodity prices, putting more of a strain on lower income communities.  According to a release by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), “U.S. and European policy to increase the production of biofuel could lead to almost 200,000 deaths in poorer countries.”  A staggering statistic that proves a need for change goes beyond the land.

Researches see great potential for kelp and seaweed as a means for biofuel.  The marine plant grows in abundance, is not generally a food source, doesn’t need freshwater to grow and doesn’t take up land space, making it a worthwhile solution to research.  Just like crops, the carbohydrates in seaweed tissue can be converted into fuel.  There are three ways conversion can be accomplished; pyrolysis, which is a process of burning to create oil, fermentation with bacteria to create ethanol and through anaerobic digestion which produces methane.  However, unlike crops, seaweed relies on water’s buoyancy, allowing the plant to skip lignin production.  A woody compound that allows land plants to stand up against gravity’s pull, lignin resists degradation, “a key obstacle in bringing terrestrial biofuels […] to the market.”  Since seaweed doesn’t produce lignin, the plant can be more easily converted to fuel.

Teams working on the project acknowledge that there are a few obstacles that must be addressed.  One such opposition is cultivation over harvesting wild seaweed.  Harvesting from the wild would compromise sustainability of the practice.  Michele Stanley of the Scottish Association of Marine Sciences, said cultivation of the sea plants would be supported.  Another factor is cost.  At this time, seaweed farming is not considered economical.  According to the Technical Research Center on Seaweed in Pleubian, France, oil prices would need to rise to at least $300 a barrel before the practice could be considered feasible.  Timing could also produce some shortages.  Statistics found harvesting at different times of the year effects carbohydrate levels.  Kelp and seaweed would need to be harvested in July, when carbohydrate levels are at their highest, in order to “ensure optimal sugar release for biofuel production.”

Despite problems that must be addressed, researchers are already planning for the future of biofuel.  The current proposal is to grow kelp and seaweed forests anchored by flexible material, allowing the plants to naturally move with the waves.  Norwegian company, Seaweed Energy Solutions AS, has already developed a device for growing kelp and seaweed on the ocean floor.  The design allows a single kelp sheet to be anchored in one area, eliminating rope tangles other designs are prone to.  Founder of the company, Pal Bakken, said the design allows for a simpler and cheaper way of harvesting seaweed, and could make deep water cultivation possible.

For now, seaweed farming is still an innovation of the future.  But, with oil prices continually rising, the future may be closer than what we think.

Photo Credit:  lib.noaa.gov/retiredsites/korea/wildstock_enhancement/ecosystem.htm

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