Monday, February 6, 2012

Brown Seaweed Production Posits New Biofuel Source

Brown Seaweed Production Posits New Biofuel Source

How would you like to be a seaweed picker? I bet you never knew that job position even existed! Well it does off the coast of Chile, and for good reason. Chilean aquafarms are harvesting abundant supplies of naturally-growing brown seaweed as a way to produce a new source of biofuel.

Brown Seaweed Biofuel Discovery

The recent development of an engineered microbe produced by Berkeley-based scientists of Bio Architecture Lab, Inc. (BAL) does some amazing things to brown seaweed. The enzyme's main contribution to science is its ability to consume the sugars of brown seaweed and convert it into biofuel. In the race to find more sustainable fuel sources to power our planet, biofuel is the new hope for the future. This major advance in the fuel industry can change the course of progression for the US.

Much like the E. coli bacteria from which the microbes were derived, scientists have outfitted enzymes to attack the primary sugars of brown seaweed. These primary sugars, called alginate, then metabolize into ethanol. Scientists hope that this microscopic enzyme will become a biofuel alternative to oil and coal, which are the predominate sources of fossil fuels.

Local Production Efforts

According to recent studies, only three percent of our oceans can produce enough seaweed to keep up with our fossil fuel demand. Coastal Chile is the destination of four aquafarms, but the frigid waters of Northern Pacific ports like Seattle and Portland are teeming with brown seaweed as well. Oceanic plants are desirable as a source of renewable energy because they don’t compete with any other crops used for food, such as corn and sugar cane.  

Over the next three years energy experts hope to increase the microbe technology in an attempt at commercialization. Research shows that with enhanced production seaweed can produce twice the level of ethanol from sugar cane and five times the amount of ethanol from corn. What’s even better news is that land clearing for mass production of corn and cane sugar would decrease if brown seaweed proved easier to harvest in a more contained location.

Harvesting Brown Seaweed

Because of the thousands of acres it takes to produce enough corn and sugar cane to produce enough biofuel for our country’s demand, brown seaweed harvesting takes the cake. Seaweed requires no watering or fertilization. It doesn’t compete with food crops or require crop rotation, nor does it require chemical enhancements. The naturally-occurring nutrients are supplies by the ocean’s ecosystem, which appeals to eco-conscious consumers.  

Beyond its use as a biofuel alternative, the modified E. coli enzyme could be used to produce isobutanol as well.
Photo courtesy AFP.

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