The Competitive Edge: Marine BioEnergy, Inc.

April 23, 2020 |

Q: What was the reason for founding your organization – what was the open niche you saw that could be addressed with a new product or service? What was the problem, or gap, or opportunity?

The U.S needs a billion tons of biomass per year, both predictable and affordable.  While corn and other land crops have provided an excellent start to biofuel production, competition for land use and fresh water will become even more challenging as the nation grows biomass to produce even more liquid bio-fuels and bio-methane. Land use will also be challenging for deployment of larger solar and wind systems. We can add capacity for energy by turning to the massive spaces in the open oceans to gather sunlight to grow abundant, competitive biomass for carbon-neutral fuels.

For scale, we need 220,000 square kilometers to grow kelp to replace 10% of fossil liquid fuels used in the U.S. today. That is an area the size of Utah. There is room in the Pacific Ocean for 705 “Utahs”.

Q: Tell us about your organization. What do you do?

Figure 1. Sketch of the open ocean farm

Marine BioEnergy is conducting research and development in collaboration with a team of marine biologists from the University of Southern California.  They have a fabulous field station on Catalina Island as part of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

We are testing a concept to farm kelp in the open ocean and preliminary results are encouraging.

The open ocean is a massive, untapped area for collecting solar energy.  The challenge is that the sunlight is in the top layer, but the top layer is nutrient poor. However, there are plenty of nutrients in the deep layer below the thermocline, and all the way to the bottom.

Marine BioEnergy proposes to deploy grids of fast-growing kelp towed by unmanned drone submarines (Figure 1). The grids will surface the kelp during the day to absorb sunlight and submerge the kelp below the thermocline at night to absorb nutrients. The drones will rendezvous the farms with harvesters 4 times a year and will also submerge the farms to avoid storms and passing ships.

Q: What stage of development are you?

We are in proof of concept.  Marine BioEnergy deployed a test buoy off the coast of Catalina Island, near Los Angeles.  The USC team attached 35 juvenile giant kelp (~20cm long) to an underwater boom.  The buoy has a winch that surfaces the kelp boom during the day and submerges it at night and the buoy has been nicknamed the “kelp elevator”.  The marine biologists also outplanted a matched set of juvenile kelp at a nearby native kelp bed to set up a control.

Q: What do your technologies, products or services do and accomplish – how does it (they) work, who is it (they) aimed for?

In the experiment off Catalina Island, the kelp on the kelp elevator produced four times as much biomass as the control kelp in a test that ran 104 days.  We are planning now to repeat this experiment. 

The species is giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) which grows a foot a day with adequate nutrients, and can be harvested 4 times a year. This research is funded by the US Dept of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, ARPA-E.  This was the first funded effort leading to the ARPA-E MARINER (Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources) program.

Giant kelp was used to make Acetone, Butanol and Ethanol by the ABE fermentation method during WWI. With updated technologies, we plan to make bio-crude that can be processed by existing refineries.  Our first customer will be CR&R, a waste management company.  They have one of the biggest solid waste digesters in the Western United States.  They have tested the kelp and can make biomethane to fuel their fleet of trash trucks, replacing diesel.  CR&R is currently using lawn and garden clippings and in certain locations they need more biomass. 

Q: Competitively, what gives your technology, product or service set an edge in cost or performance, sustainability, or any other aspect, that makes it stand out from the crowd, In short, what makes it transformative?

Kelp Growth at Week 8.  Photo credit and Videographer: Maurice Roper, USC.

These ocean farms towed by drone submarines require no land, no fresh water, no artificial fertilizers and no pesticides. We project that we can produce millions of tons of biomass to replace liquid fossil fuel at competitive prices.

In addition to the great marine biology team, we are also collaborating with a genetics team at the University of Southern California & University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. This team has innovative plans and funding to develop sterile hybrids that will make the kelp even more productive. With their hybrids and our open ocean farms, the Blue Revolution is underway, analogous to the Green Revolution in agriculture during the last century.

Q: What are the 3 top milestones you have accomplished in the past 3 years?

  1. Working with our sponsor at ARPA-E, developed and deployed the kelp elevator for the proof-of-concept.
  2. Working with the team at USC, demonstrated the kelp would produce abundant biomass in the depth-cycling environment.
  3. Located first customers for kelp.

Q: What are the 3 top milestones you will accomplish in the next 3 years?

  1. Produce a pilot-scale ocean farm.
  2. Process kelp into fuel.
  3. Test other potential macroalgae strains and species for depth-cycling for markets in fuel, food and feed.

Q. Where can I learn more about Marine BioEnergy, Inc.?

Click here to visit Marine BioEnergy, Inc.’s website.


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