Scientists have found a way to turn seaweed into fuel

Skeptics say it’s yet another renewable pipe dream

Algal boom

Bio Architecture Lab

As the world’s oil supply shrinks, we will be forced to find new ways of fuelling our cars and powering our homes—but how? The answer may rest in the ocean. Scientists from a lab in California have developed a technology that turns seaweed into renewable fuel, a process biologists have been trying to perfect for decades. Industry experts say this practice has huge potential, but some skeptics say the creators may be jumping the gun.

After receiving funding and a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Yasuo Yoshikuni, co-founder of Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) in Berkeley, Calif., spent 2½ years refining the technology. The company worked out a deal with South American counterparts and now grows its seaweed in Chile, where it owns and operates four offshore farms and is currently developing storage facilities.

Recently, algae has successfully been converted into energy to heat homes and fuel ships, but it’s an inefficient process—biologists have never been able to convert the whole plant into fuel. One of seaweed’s major sugars, alginate, is an intricate polymer that cannot normally be turned into ethanol, a component of gas. But BAL scientists manufactured a micro-organism that, mixed with fresh, chopped-up seaweed, ferments the alginate and the rest of the seaweed’s sugars into ethanol—a process similar to brewing beer.

Countries like Brazil rely on other agricultural biofuels, such as corn and sugar cane, but there is an inevitable tug of war between fuel and food industries. Seaweed is less problematic: it’s more sustainable, abundant and grows in places that are mostly untouched.

“When you grow corn on land, there’s basically a fixed amount of land, and if you were to increase the use of that corn for fuels, you are taking away the use of that corn for something else,” says BAL spokesman John Williams. Using just three per cent of the waters that can grow seaweed could produce 60 billion gallons of fuel—four per cent of the world’s annual fuel consumption.

Thierry Chopin is a professor of marine biology at the University of New Brunswick and the scientific adviser for Norway’s Seaweed Energy Solutions. He cultivates seaweed on the eastern Canadian coast that is used mainly for food, cosmetics and fish feed, and is also working on converting seaweed into energy sources such as methane. But he is concerned that fuel made from seaweed won’t be competitively priced. He also wonders how BAL’s workers will be able to farm it year-round—a technical hitch for which Yoshikuni says they are working on finding a solution.

But BAL’s Williams says that nobody is suggesting this technology is the answer to the world’s oil problems. “No one expects seaweed to replace every drop of petroleum in the world, that’s not our intent. But as the world continues to look for ways to add renewable fuels, fuels that have a lower carbon footprint, this discovery opens up a new place to look for that source.”

Yoshikuni says he has his sights set on Canada; its rich coastline is perfectly equipped for growing seaweed that can be used for biofuels. And if the technology makes its way north, the sustainable process has the potential to garner support, rather than disapproval, from environmental groups and anti-pipeline activists.

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