Classic WHO—Seaweed as Fuel - WhoWhatWhy

Classic WHO—Seaweed as Fuel

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This first appeared on our site in February, 2012. 

This just in….Seaweed isn’t just for getting tangled in anymore.

According to a new report, this common, seemingly inexhaustible resource may be one, partial but important, answer to the impending decline in fossil fuel supplies.

You heard that right. A report published last week in the leading journal Science details how a team at the Bio Architecture Lab in Berkeley, California, modified the common gut bacteria E. Coli to take the smelly, salty sea plant and…produce ethanol.

The potential of this new-found energy source is vast, with some scientists predicting that global aquatic biomass could in theory provide the world’s energy needs many times over. The United States, with its enormous coastline, is in a particularly good position to develop seaweed as a low-carbon fuel alternative.

What makes seaweed special, besides its charms to small children frolicking in the surf, is that when you compare it to land-based biofuels such as corn and sugar cane, it can produce up to four times as much ethanol per unit.

Another attraction is that it renders irrelevant the conventional ‘food-versus-fuel’ debate, in which the use of arable land to produce biofuel has been identified as both a cause of skyrocketing food prices and of extensive environmental damage.

So, this seaweed business is popping good—a “ground-breaking achievement,” in the words of Yong-Su Jin of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois.

But, he warns, “We still face a huge technical gap for large-scale cultivation.” Costs would have to come down five-fold before this process could become commercially competitive with ordinary fossil fuels, though economies of scale should kick in as production ramps up. Another factor to consider is how best to ensure a proper ecological balance in areas with large-scale seaweed farming.

United States Exclusive Economic Zone

Even so, given our huge energy needs, seaweed could never realistically replace fossil fuels as our primary fuel source. However, if pilot projects already underway in the U.K. and in development off the coast of Chile prove successful, seaweed could well be a much needed stepping stone toward a multi-sourced sustainable energy economy.


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3 responses to “Classic WHO—Seaweed as Fuel”

  1. Avatar Emily Elizabeth Windsor-Cragg says:

    This is now moot because the entire Pacific is radioactive and all the seaweed in it, unusable.

  2. Avatar Bill Johnson says:

    Algae seems like a better alternative as it can be grown and harvested in tanks instead of harvesting seaweed from the ocean.

  3. Avatar sfulmer says:

    There’s also the algae to oil thing discussed for years. But, equally, or perhaps, more important to consider is public access to “the commons”, and thus opportunity for something different than the corporate model of production. So, while we have a ” huge technical gap for large-scale cultivation”, the economic gap is the far more oppressive challenge that arguably has prevented more ecologically sustainable solutions from taking root. It is beyond time to try something else.