With a Little Kelp from my Friends: Macroalgae projects, concepts bloom

June 23, 2010 |

Kelp forest - bioenergy feedstock beneath the waves?

Of all the results in the recent Transformative Technologies reader poll, the most surprising by far is the support for seaweed-based biofuels technologies. The sector placed third among all transformative technology platforms, with 8.63 percent of the votes.

It could be simply that “macroalgae” attracts votes in the way that “jatrophalgae” or “cornalgae” might have, too – riding high on the sustained, passionate interest in algae and other feedstocks in the “Wild, Wild Wet”.

But there are reasons to believe that reader interest is more sophisticated. In fact, ARPA-E — the US-based Advanced Research Projects Administration (Energy) — awarded $9 million to a DuPont/BAL macroalgae project that is ultimately aimed at supplying biobutanol that will be marketed by Butamax, the BP-DuPont joint venture.

So, what are the advantages?

According to a spritely write up on seaweed technologies in Biomass Energy Journal, “Seaweed grows faster than other biofuel sources and allows for as much as six harvests per year. And because seaweeds do not have lignin, pretreatment is not necessary. It is also not as politically sensitive, does not encroach on land used for food-crop production, and absorbs up to seven times more carbon in the atmosphere.”

The challenges

Like other sectors in advanced biofuels, macroalgae is a world of pilot projects and proposals – commercial scale projects are several years away, even if funding were to appear almost immediately. But more than funding, macroalgae are a proven plant with more than a hundred million years of success growing in the oceans. But like their cousin microalgae, these species are wild wolves, rather than tame puppies, have no idea what we want them to become and have spent millions of years building up defense mechanisms against predators that we do not yet fully understand. The commercialization of wild crops is no small challenge, even on land. In our ancestral home, the oceans, we are newbies on the block.

Projects in the field now

South Korea project. Last April in South Korea, national energy officials confirmed that the country will invest $275 over ten years to create 86,000 acres of offshore seaweed forests that will produce up to 396 Mgy of ethanol by 2020.  The production capacity would replace up to 13 percent of South Korea’s petroleum consumption. More on the story.

Scotland project. Also last April in Scotland, Scottish energy minister Jim Mather opened the $8 million BioMara project that will investigate the feasibility of algae-to-biofuels in the UK. The project is supported by the European Union’s INTERREG IVA Programme, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Crown Estate, Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government. The project will investigate the biofuels potential of seaweeds as well as microalgae and identify suitable strains for commercial-scale production. More on the story.

Chile’s CORFO. The Chilean Economic Development Corporation (CORFO) announced earlier this month an investment of 7 million US dollars towards a seaweed-based bio-ethanol project spearheaded by the Seattle-based Bio Architecture Lab (BAL), in collaboration with the Universidad de Los Lagos and Chilean oil company ENAP.  The project’s ambitious goal is to produce an annual 165 million litres of bio-fuel, equivalent to 5% of Chile’s petrol consumption. Plans to install a small test plant in Puerto Montt are set for this year. More on the story.

BAL-DuPont. In March, the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has awarded a Technology Investment Agreement to DuPont for the development of a process to convert sugars produced by macroalgae into next-generation biofuels called isobutanol. Bio Architecture Lab will be a subrecipient on the program. Under this award, the DOE will fund $8.8 million and DuPont and BAL will cost share the balance of the total award, forming a joint cost share program between DOE and DuPont.

Butamax Advanced Biofuels, a joint venture between DuPont and BP, will be responsible for commercialization of the resulting technology package. The macroalgae-to-isobutanol project will establish technology and intellectual property leadership in the use of macroalgae as a low cost, scalable and environmentally sustainable biomass for biofuel production.

Efforts will focus on: improving domestic macroalgae aquaculture; converting macroalgae to bio-available sugars; converting those sugars to isobutanol; and economic and environmental optimization of the production process. More than 60 scientists in Wilmington, Del., and Berkeley, Calif., will work on this research and development program. The macroalgae aquafarming project will be conducted in Southern California. More on the story.

BAL Chile. BAL founded BAL Chile last November, and will develop a 240-acre pilot seaweed farm on the island of Chiloé. The $5 million project will include a pilot ethanol production facility that will be located in Los Lagos.  BAL has developed microorganisms that ferment the algae into ethanol — and has partnered with local Chilean companies and universities on the project. The project is expected to increase to a 24,000 acre harvest area spanning the entire coastline of the country, that will produce enough ethanol to replace 5 percent of Chilean gasoline consumption. More on the story.

Italy’s Venetian project. Last March over in Europe, the city of Venice announced a 200 million euro project to capture “Sargassum muticum” and “Undaria pinnatifida” algae seaweed and generate 40 MW of power from algae biofuel. The proposed plant will supply up to half of the power needed by the ancient city, or supply power to docked ships in the harbor in addition to power for port facilities.  In addition, the Venice Authority said that they will cultivate microalgae using closed photobioreactors to generate more biomass for power generation. More on the story.

Developments in Japan, Ireland and Argentina. In September 2008, the Digest highlighted a series of seaweed developments in Japan, Australia and Argentina. Seaweed, in the form of sargassum raised on the seabed floor as a biofuel feedstock, was originally the subject of a 3860 square mile underwater biofuel farm proposed in 2007 for the Yamotai seabed off the coast of Japan. NEC Toshiba, Mitsubishi Electric, IHI, Sumitomo Electric, Shimizu, Toa, Kanto Natural Gas Development, and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology had announced participation. At the time, an Australian researcher, presenting at the International Society for Applied Phycology, raised the prospect of cultivating sea-based algae and brown seaweeds off the coast of Ireland as biofuel feedstock. Plus Argentina’s Oil Fox and Biocombustibles de Chubut said back in 2008 that they were pursuing the production of biodiesel from seaweed based on a $60 million investment from Switzerland. More on the story.

Proposals and concepts

Seaweed Energy Solutions. This past spring in Norway, Seaweed Energy Solutions patented the first ever modern structure to enable mass seaweed cultivation on an industrial scale in the world¹s oceans. The structure, known as the Seaweed Carrier, makes a clean break with past seaweed cultivation methods that have all been based on ropes. The Seaweed Carrier is a sheet-like structure that basically copies a very large seaweed plant, moving freely back and forth through the sea from a single mooring on the ocean floor. More on the story.

The Seaweed Carrier will allow seaweed cultivation to become a possibility in deeper and more exposed waters, opening the way for large scale production that is necessary to make seaweed a viable source of energy. According to SES,  growing seaweed in farms covering an area of just less than 0.05 percent of Europe’s coastal regions would yield a yearly production of 75 million tons of seaweed. This biomass could be converted into an estimated 846 Mgy (3.2 billion litters) of ethanol, about 4.7 percent of the global ethanol production in 2008. More on the story.

Philippine project. In the Philippines, the national government plans to develop a $5-million (P220-million) ethanol farm at a 100-hectare site in the province using the Korean technology of extracting ethanol from seaweed. The project will be implemented in two clusters, one in the provinces of Aurora, Isabela and Quirino in Northern Luzon and another in Bohol where a similar $5-million facility has been established to jump-start the cooperative venture. More on the story.

Seaweed from major ocean currents. In a more far-out vein, a concept video out of Europe sighted on YouTube proclaimed “Seaweed biofuel could be the largest renewable energy source of the the 21st century.” The novel concept, from designer Kaare Baekgaard, proposes that the oceans be seeded with macroalgae along known ocean surface current lines, with giant surface-based collection barrier nets harvesting the macroalgae after it has drifted hundreds or thousands of miles during its growth phase. According to Baekgaard’s concept, collection units would then process the macroalgae into fuel as well as providing material to restart the growth process. More on the story.

Algae-powered airships. In the way, way, way out there department, we highlighted last month work by conceptual architect Vincent Callebaut who developed an algae-powered hybrid aircraft concept, the Hydrogenase, designed to fly at 6.500 feet (2,000 meters), carry 200 tons of freight and achieve airspeeds of 109 Mph.

According to the designer, “The floating farm is a true organic purifying station composed of 4 carbon wells in which the green seaweeds recycle our carbonated waste brought by ships. This is directly dedicated to feed organically in biohydrogen the proactive airship…Energically self-sufficient, this farm organizes on a radiant plan, the seaweed bioreactors exposed to the zenith sun under the lenticular accelerators for a better photochemical output. We’re not sure the extent to which there is much reality in this concept, but the renderings are inspiring for those who think in terms of an algal-powered society in the 21st or 22nd centuries. More on the story.

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