Breakthrough in seaweed biofuel

2012-01-20 22:12

Washington - Energy experts believe that seaweed holds enormous potential as a biofuel alternative to coal and oil, and US-based scientists say they have unlocked the secret of turning its sugar into energy.

A newly engineered microbe can do the work by metabolising all of the major sugars in brown seaweed, potentially making it a cost-competitive alternative to petroleum fuel, said the report in the US journal Science.

The team at the Berkeley, California-based Bio Architecture Lab engineered a form of E coli bacteria that can digest the seaweed's sugars into ethanol, it said.

Unlike other microbes before, researchers found it can attack the primary sugar constituent in seaweed, known as alginate.

"Our scientists have engineered an enzyme to degrade and a pathway to metabolise the alginate, allowing us to utilise all the major sugars in seaweed, said Daniel Trunfio, chief executive at Bio Architecture Lab.

The advance "makes the biomass an economical feedstock for the production of renewable fuels and chemicals," he said.

A company spokesperson told AFP that the lab currently has four aquafarming sites in Chile where it hopes to "scale up its microbe technology as the next step on the path to commercialisation" in the next three years.

Seaweed is seen as an appealing option for biofuel because, unlike corn and sugar cane, it does not use arable land and so does not compete with crops grown for food.

Less than three percent of the world's coastal waters can produce enough seaweed to replace some 60 billion gallons of fossil fuel, according to background information in the article.

At peak production, seaweed could produce 19 000 litres per hectare annually, about twice the level of ethanol productivity from sugarcane and five times higher than the ethanol productivity from corn.

Funding for the research came from the US department of energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency, a grant from InnovaChile, and Norwegian oil giant Statoil.

  • Zion - 2012-01-21 07:10

    One can only wonder at the effect it would have on the shallow regions of the coast teeming with dozens of life-forms. It may sound like a good idea initially but when it comes to the cost of harvesting and beach cleaning then different stories may be heard.

  • ludlowdj - 2012-01-23 10:59

    Uses for seaweed are numerous although still largely considered "secret" with it being used as food in space missions, used as batteries etc. Its ability to be be used as a fuel has long been talked about although it would have of course been in the best interests of big business and oil produces to keep this quiet for as long as possible. The possible environmental impact is of course huge, but then again we have over the years abused the sea to such a degree that we need to start accepting that the days of the sea being a source of healthy or nutritious foods is all but over. Area's like the great Atlantic garbage pile already having reached the point where 80% of the solids in the water are already plastic based. Initial studies indicate that the earth is unlikely to be able to support human life in as little as a 100 years at the present levels of pollution.

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