Seaweed: A New Wave of Investment in Macro-Algae

October 4, 2010 |

Macro-algae attracts greater investment for sugar-based Advanced Biofuels, Drop-In Fuels and Chemicals

by Will Thurmond, Market Trends Columnist, Biofuels Digest

An emerging rise in investment in from petrochemical majors and governments in Asia, Europe and the Americas aims at extracting sugars from seaweed for ethanol, advanced biofuels, drop-in fuels, biochemicals and biopolymers.

For more than 100 years, China and Asian nations have grown seaweed also known as macro-algae for food, animal feed, pharmaceutical remedies, and cosmetic purposes.

Why Macro-Algae? A new study, Algae 2020, Vol 2 (October, 2010 update) finds experts from Korea, the Philippines, Norway, the US and Chile agree seaweed grows faster than terrestrial crops, has a high sugar content for conversion to advanced biofuels and ethanol, absorbs more airborne carbon than land-based plants, has no lignin, can be easily harvested compared to microalgae, requires no pretreatment for ethanol production, can be harvested up to six times a year in warm climates.  The Algae 2020 study details emerging projects in macro-algae driving increased investment in projects around the world, as highlighted below.

Emerging Trends in Macroalgae Investment

Project  and Partners Products Description
South Korea National Energy Ministry Ethanol Korea – $275 USD million project over 10 years to produce nearly 400 million gallons a year of ethanol by 2020, approximately 13% of S. Korea’s consumption. The project will create an offshore seaweed forest approximately 86,000 acres in size.
City of Venice JV with Port Authority and Electric Power Plant Algae Biofuel for Electric Power Italy – $200 million Euro project announced in March 2009 by the city of Venice to capture algae seaweed and generate 40 MW of power from algae biofuel to supply up to half of the city’s power supply and for to port facilities and docked ships in the harbor.  The project will also cultivate microalgae in closed photobioreactors to generate biomass for power generation.
Biomara / Scotland’s Ministry of Energy Algal Biofuels Scotland – $8 million USD from Scotland’s Energy Ministry and the EU’s INTERREG IVA Programme, and Crown Estate in April 2009 to investigate seaweed and microalgae strains for commercial scale production.
Chilean Economic Development Corporation (CORFO) and Bio-Architecture Lab (BAL) Ethanol Chile – $7 million USD investment in 2010 in a seaweed-based bio-ethanol project lead by US-based BAL in collaboration with Chilean oil company ENAP and the Universidad de Los.  Project goal is to replace 5% of Chile’s gasoline consumption with 165 million litres of ethanol.
Philippines National Government, Korean Institute for Industrial Technology. Ethanol and biofuels Philippines – $5 million from the Philippines government to develop a 250 acre, seaweed-based ethanol plant and aquafarm cluster. The aquafarms will in 4 locations and will utilize a South Korean ethanol extraction technology developed at the Korean Institute for Industrial Technology.
Statoil and Bio-Architecture Lab (BAL) Ethanol and Co-Products (Lipids, Proteins, Iodine) Norway – starting in late 2010, Statoil will fund  BAL’s  R&D and demonstrations projects in Norway with the goal of commercialization of BAL’s technology in Norway and in Europe.  BAL will utilize its process technology will convert seaweed from Statoil’s aquafarming operations into ethanol and co-products in the partnership.
Dupont/BAL  (Bio-Architechture Lab) Biobutanol, Sugars for Advanced and Drop-In Fuels USA – $9 million US-based Advanced Research Projects Administration Energy  announced in Spring 2010 to fund a DuPont/BAL macroalgae project  aimed at supplying biobutanol  to be marketed by Butamax, the BP-DuPont JV
Sources: Algae 2020 study Vol . 2, Biofuels Digest, Emerging Markets Online,  industry journals

A key trend from the Algae 2020 study finds most macro-algae projects prior to 2010 focused on ethanol. However, since 2010, the entrance of oil and petrochemical majors Dupont and Statoil are expressing an increased interest in extracting sugars from seaweed to create drop-in fuels, biochemicals and other valuable co products such as biobutanol. This follows a key trend by Shell and BP investing $12 and $8 billion respectively in sugar-based conglomerates in Brazil to produce bio-butanol, drop-in fuels, and bio-based chemical products.

Emerging Markets Online’s updated Algae 2020 study finds the surging investments in extracting sugars from seaweed follows an emerging microbial “sugar to biofuels” trend in the Americas in Brazil for ethanol, biobutanol, and advanced biofuels. In September 2010, Bunge and Chevron invested in US-based Solazyme to create renewable algae-based oils. In addition, LS9, Amyris, and Virent aim to use plant-based sugars to produce drop-in fuels,  bio-based diesel, biobutanol, biogasoline, biochemicals and bioplastics.

Will sea-based sugars from macro-algae provide a new feedstock for advanced biofuels, drop in fuels and biochemicals for these emerging sugar-based, infrastructure compatible biofuels and chemicals platforms? Evidently, an increasing number of petrochemical majors including Dupont, Statoil, believe harvesting sugars from seaweed is attractive and are investing in next-generation,sea-based macroalgae projects as a feedstock for advanced biofuels, drop-in fuels, biochemicals, and biopolymers.

Will Thurmond, columnist for Biofuels Digest and Biofuels International, is CEO of Emerging Markets Online, author of Algae 2020 and Biodiesel 2020 studies,  and Economic Advisor to the National Algae Association and the Greater Houston Partnership.  For more information, visit

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