A Sea Change For Biofuels
: Peak oil, fresh water shortages, and food challenges are driving innovations in aquatic feedstocks

May 10, 2010 |

By Will Thurmond, CEO Emerging Markets Online and Biofuels Digest


As we enter a new decade in 2010, leagues of prescient scientists , businessmen, politicians, commodity traders, defense hawks, activists, NGOs and social entrepreneurs are taking on future challenges by invoking ancient wisdom. Necessity is the mother of invention.  A sea change is coming to the global energy, food and water industries, bringing a new wave of opportunities for feedstock development.

Interdependent Systems

Energy, water and food resources are interconnected and in increasing demand world-wide.  Scientists at the University of Texas note nearly 1 billion people world-wide are near starvation, nearly 1 billion do not have adequate freshwater, and more than 2 billion people do not have proper sanitation.  

Systems models and dynamics demonstrate key interdependencies between energy, water and food.

For example, increases in wastewater and sanitation industrialization place greater demands on energy use. Similarly, increasing food production for global population growth creates greater demands for energy and freshwater – two commodities in increasing in demand and limited supply.

How can aquatic feedstock systems help to solve these interconnected energy, food, fuel challenges?  One solution is emerging from salt-tolerant feedstocks such as seaweed, sea asparagus, algae, and lemna, that can grow in brackish water,  saltwater and desert areas, saving freshwater and arable land for vital resources.

Many salt-tolerant aquatic feedstocks are also used for bioremediation to treat wastewater, yielding freshwater and sanitation benefits. Several aquatic feedstocks and varieties are now being further developed as sustainable, alternative sources for biofuels, food, feed, and fiber.

Emerging Energy Demands

The US Department of Energy estimates global demand for energy will increase by 50% by the year 2030. Over the next 20 years, most of this energy growth will come from the Emerging Markets of China, India, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas.  How will the world meet these increasing demands for energy?

Image1India Oil Production and Demand to 2030

India, China, the EU and the US are presently addicted to imported oil. Each country has a plan to reduce crude oil consumption with biofuels. Since 2007,  oil and gas majors, aviation fuels alliances, governments and defense industries are increasingly investing in aquatic feedstocks such as seaweed, cyanobacteria, sea asparagus, glasswort, and microalgae as logical long-term feedstocks of choice to produce high-density, advanced biofuels , aviation fuels, biochemicals and biopolymers  without compromising rainforests, arable land or freshwater.

Emerging Food Demands

According to of the United Nations, agricultural output will need to double by 2050 to feed more than 9 billion people, which notes increasing food production is a moral imperative to meet growing population demands. The increasing needs from Emerging Market economies for feed and fuel are creating greater demands on arable lands for agricultural commodities, fuel, and fresh water. For these reasons, salt-tolerant and wastewater based feedstocks are in greater demand  for human food and livestock feed consumption.

Image2 Algal Oil Fraction Products and Markets

For example, China, Japan and Korea are three of the world’s largest consumers of seaweed as a basic food staple.  Seaweed (macro algae) contains essential nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates and fiber. For the Emerging Markets, the IMF notes an increasing demand from rising middle classes to move beyond basic agricultural staples such as seaweed and rice towards the consumption of proteins from fish, chicken, cattle and livestock.

Alternative feedstocks that grow in oceans, seas, marshes and desert regions such as sea asparagus, sea kale, algae, samphire, seashore mallow, sea weeds and grasses will have an increasingly critical role to play in fueling and feeding growing populations world-wide.

A Sea Change for Biofuels

In recent years, the food vs. fuel debate has prompted greater concerns over use of fresh water.  Scientists from the US DOE and the UK’s Institute of Science in Society note 98% of world’s water supply comes from seawater, whereas only 1% is freshwater, and 1% is brackish water. Moreover, experts from NASA and the Langley Research Center stress shortages of fresh water present an even greater threat to global food supplies than the shortage of fossil fuels.  A sea change is coming to the biofuels industry.

Over the next decade, increasing demands for food, fuel and freshwater will create new opportunities world-wide to develop integrated, sustainable food and fuel systems from the sea, wastewater and salt-tolerant feedstocks.

This article was written by Will Thurmond, Founder and CEO of market research consulting and publishing  firm Emerging Markets Online and author of the forthcoming study Advanced Drop-In Fuels 2020 (June 2010),  Algae 2020 (2009),and Biodiesel 2020 (2008, and 2006 editions)

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