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Kilowatts from Kelp

The DOE investigates seaweed as a potential power source

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Seaweed is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth.  It stretches from the seafloor to the surface at an astonishing rate of two to three feet a day. And scientists believe that someday this quick-growing resource could provide a significant source of power.  

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has recently invested in seaweed-to-fuel research. Kelp can be converted to biofuel through a high-temperature, high-pressure conversion process called thermochemical liquefaction. Last week, the agency offered $22 million in funding through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) for 18 different macroalgae projects as part of the Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER) program.

The DOE estimates that the US could produce enough macroalgae to meet about 10% of the nation’s annual energy needs for transportation. Therefore, it explains, it is actively exploring the concept of seaweed production in order to support US energy security.

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“Macroalgae can be utilized as a feedstock for domestic transportation fuels, chemicals, and other commercial products without competing with food crops for land and water,” the agency indicated in a press release.

Today most of the domestic biomass produced for electricity generation takes place on land. But researchers feel that open-ocean biomass production would free up valuable real estate while providing a clean resource. But first, new cultivation technologies and methods are needed to significantly increase production efficiency.

“Achieving this heightened productivity requires a technology-driven approach focusing on transformative, systems-level improvements and engineering, including advanced research in farm design and autonomous operation.”  By funding programs such as these, the DOE hopes to help scientists achieve the scale, cost, and efficiency needed for an impactful seaweed-to-fuels process.

What are your impressions? Do you think that in the future microalgae could prove a cost-effective source of biofuel? DE_bug_web

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  1. Someone should look into using kudzu, as well, for a resource for biofuels. It, too, grows at feet per day – a horrible invasive plant that is destroying habitat in the South.

  2. What sea life now uses seaweed as a food? I.E., what bio-system will human harvesting of seaweed interfere with? And if seaweed grows 2 to 3 feet per day, what additional technologies are needed? As in this sentence: But first, new cultivation technologies and methods are needed to significantly increase production efficiency.

  3. Impressions: Interesting, but nothing more. Do I think it would be a cost effective source of biofuel? No. I think the cost of “high pressure/high temperature” processing is going to exceed the required price point.
    Aside from that, many jurisdictions are mandating the phasing out of petroleum powered vehicles. While this probably wouldn’t technically preclude a bio-fuel vehicle, I think that functionally, vehicles will become electric only. That would cause the demand for “oil” to drop and with it, its price which will further undercut a biofuel option.

  4. Feed the matter into digesters at waste water treatment plants and you improve methane output for use in co-generation plants – producing heat and power. No additional capital requirements either.

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