Marine BioEnergy going to great lengths to kelp the environment

September 2, 2017 |

In California, Marine BioEnergy appeared in Fast Company’s “World Changing Ideas” for their kelp to biofuel plans. Working with the University of Southern California, Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies and with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), Marine BioEnergy sees a future where up to 10% of U.S. transportation fuel is coming from kelp grown in the ocean using drones and other high-tech tools.

The backstory

Like so many other things, it all started during the oil crisis of the 1970’s. With oil shortages abounding, the U.S. Navy worked on growing kelp to produce biofuel as an alternative. Things didn’t go so well. Anchors failed in the strong ocean currents. They had to pump nutrient-rich deep ocean water into the surface areas where the kelp was anchored to get sunlight. Soon the oil crisis ended and the government lost interest.

But kelp has something to help now that it didn’t have in the 1970’s – drones. Drones could end up making all the difference as they allow the kelp rows to navigate from the top sunlight filled ocean water during the day to the deep-down depths where needed nutrients are found at night.

Interestingly, Brian Wilcox, who started Marine BioEnergy with his wife Cindy, is the son of the U.S. Navy lead researcher from the 1970’s. Maybe he just wanted to finish what his Dad started, but with the drones and new high-tech tools that weren’t available back then, Wilcox now has a real chance to make this happen.

Making it happen

Once they can prove it works in their proof-of-concept tests, Marine BioEnergy plans on using robotic submarines or sea drones to take the kelp rows down into the deep ocean to get nutrients and back up to the surface to get needed sunlight. Once the kelp is ready to be harvested, they plan on converting it into carbon-neutral biocrude leading to eventual gasoline or jet fuel, using thermochemical liquefaction. Even better, the drones can carry the kelp over to nearby ships that can collect it or possibly even harvest and process it on the ships.

Working with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on the conversion process, they are trying to figure out if it makes more economic sense to process it on the ship or bring it back to land for processing. The kelp-derived fuel would end up being carbon neutral since kelp sucks up carbon dioxide while it is growing that counteracts the carbon dioxide that is let out as the fuel burns.

Battle of the dollar

As we’ve learned from TerraVia, Joule Unliminted, and others that had great ideas that just couldn’t make it profitable enough to survive, will kelp pricing be able to face off against fossil fuel and natural gas prices?

Cindy Wilcox told Fast Company, “We think we can make fuel at a price that’s competitive with the fossil fuel that’s in use today.” Apparently, kelp is easier and less expensive to process than plants since it has little lignin or cellulose fibers, and it grows quickly – more than a foot a day – with no pesticides needed and built in natural irrigation from the ocean water. But to make it cost-effective, you need a lot of kelp.

Diane Kim, a scientist at the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, who is helping with the proof-of-concept study, told Fast Company, “You’re going to need a lot of kelp in order to make it cost-competitive with something like coal, fossil fuels, or natural gas. In order to grow that much kelp, you really have to move outside the normal range of where kelp is found, which is along the coast. Part of this project for the next two years is to really figure out, using the depth cycling strategy, if it works at all, and what are the parameters. Theoretically, it should work.”

Does kelp need help?

While we love to be Positive Polly, we need Negative Nellie to bring us back down to earth. So as promising as kelp looks to be for biofuels, we tried to find downsides to this floating feedstock. But there weren’t many.

One potential cause for concern is a study where UK researchers discovered viruses in kelps that could damage biofuel prospects, as we reported in August. The scientists warned the UK kelp biofuel industry to beware of viruses. Whilst known to infect certain types of seaweed, a new study published in the ISME Journal is the first to describe viruses in kelps, which are important both ecologically and commercially.

Researchers from the Marine Biological Association (MBA) and University of Plymouth examined Laminaria and Saccharina kelps commonly occurring around the British Isles, and which include target species for the emerging kelp biofuel industry. They detected viruses by searching at the molecular level for their DNA ‘fingerprint’, and their presence was confirmed by observation of symptoms of infection using conventional and electron microscopy.

In the field, these viruses were found to have infected two thirds of their host populations; however, their biological impact remains unknown and the authors warn that this unexplored pool of viruses could have unexpected effects in cultivation conditions.

But is this something unique to the UK? Will those same virus concerns extend to California’s coast? We don’t know.

Another potential concern is one brought up in a report by the California Coastal Commission, as we reported in May, that questions what happens if the torpedo anchoring system proposed doesn’t work as it should? What if they don’t stay put or what if it becomes impossible to remove, leaving equipment to stay in the ocean indefinitely? Hopefully those are concerns that Marine BioEnergy has addressed or is working on addressing before they reach commercial scale production.

Bottom line

Marine BioEnergy has a lot of challenges ahead with ensuring they can produce kelp on a large enough commercial scale to make it profitable, but they have many things going for them that were lacking in the 1970’s. Better technology like drones and robotic submarines, improved conversion processes, the possibility of processing the kelp right on a ship in the ocean, rising gas prices thanks to Hurricane Harvey and oil production issues in Texas – all of these things could be just the help that kelp needs to be a success.


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