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Seaweed set to ignite biofuel boom

Sun, 22nd Jan 2012

Chris Smith

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Already a major contributor to the food and fertiliser industries, seaweed could also hold the key to low cost biofuels thanks to the creation of an algae-eating Seaweed in UKstrain of E. coli

Writing in Science, Adam Wargacki and his colleagues from the US-based company BAL, which stands for Bio Architecture Lab, have developed a modified form of the E. coli bacterium capable of unlocking the chemical energy stored inside seaweeds and turning it into ethanol.

In tests, their re-engineered bugs work with an efficiency of over 80% and are able to generate alcohol concentrations on par with processes currently used to produce bioethanol from arable crop waste.

The major hurdle the team needed to overcome is the fact that, in seaweed, a large amount of the energy is stored in the form of a complex sugar called alginate, which is difficult for individual bacterial strains to break down, let alone ferment to alcohol.

To engineer a seafood-favouring form of E. coli, the BAL team "borrowed" genes from other organisms and used them to "tool up" their new bug strain. These included adding a secretable Pseudoalteromonas "alginate lyase", which breaks up the seaweed alginates into smaller, more-digestible fragments, and a family of genes, from a water-borne bug called Vibrio splendidus, that transport these alginates into the bacteria and then break them down.

Set to work on a diet of the common brown seaweed Saccharina japonica, the engineered E. coli yielded alcohol concentrations of 4.7% within 48 hours. Exploiting seaweed in this way offers major advantages over traditional approaches to biofuel production.

Feasibility studies have suggested that each hectare of sea would yield a dry-weight of 59 tonnes per year, which could produce as much as 19,000 litres of bioethanol, which is twice what cane can do and five times the yield achieved from maize.

And as the team point out, seaweed aquaculture would not require arable land and therefore would not impact on food production, it doesn't require fertilisers and may even help to decontaminate nitrogen-polluted water and, even more critically, this form of farming does not require irrigation!



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"which is twice what cane can do and five times the yield achieved from maize"
- Sounds amazing!

I really like this approach because it will not further increase the pressure on arable land; that is pushing the price of basic foods up for the world's poorest. peppercorn, Sun, 22nd Jan 2012

One has to consider that there are already critters in the ocean, many of which eat seaweed.  And, at least those critters living on the continental shelves are in fact part of our food chain.

There has been a lot of discussion about algae.  I've wondered if it would be possible to harvest algae out of some of the slow moving rivers that get lots of crop runoff. 

Likewise, one might be able to harvest naturally occurring plankton and diatoms from the oceans.

Of course, there is always the temptation to over-harvest, ignoring the critters that depend on the food source, and any breeding for "better" seaweed and plankton would inevitably escape into the wild. CliffordK, Sun, 22nd Jan 2012

Short and to the point. Not if Big Oil has anything to say about it. And they always do! Gordian Knot, Mon, 23rd Jan 2012

Ah yes. The old 'big oil" conspiracy strikes again! You know they suppressed inventions that can make cars run on water too  Geezer, Mon, 23rd Jan 2012

Now, now! No reason to get silly on me Geezer. :)  Big Oil has bought many friends in Washington. Their lobby is very powerful. Do you believe that if some bloke came up with a cheap, clean, abundant energy source that Big Oil would just shrug their collective shoulders and say "Oh well it was great while it lasted?"

I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories. I DO think that those who hold power (pun not intended) will not easily relinquish that power, and will go to great lengths to retain that power. That is human nature, which was my point. Do you believe it is a flawed statement? Gordian Knot, Mon, 23rd Jan 2012

Sure - all business operates on the basis of making money. They have an obligation to their shareholders to do that. My objection is to the expression "big oil", which implies that there is a cartel controlling everything from some a smoke filled room (probably leased from the Knights Templar).

The oil companies are just as concerned about what they are going to do for an encore as natural supplies deplete. If this technology works (btw -previous attempts have failed and cost US taxpayers a lot of money) every oil company will be interested in exploiting it. It would be commercial suicide for any oil company to ignore, or try to suppress it.

Many ideas like this fall by the wayside, not for sinister reasons, but for the simple reason that they are commercial flops. Maybe this one will really fly - I do hope so. Geezer, Mon, 23rd Jan 2012

In fact, I believe that "big oil" is one of the big investors in alternative energy. 
BP, of course, has a solar division.

Other companies including Chevron are vertically expanding into Alcohol production that is being mandated to be mixed with fuel.  While the companies make lots of money by drilling for oil, perhaps they are better thought of as energy distribution companies. CliffordK, Mon, 23rd Jan 2012

Geezer, Clifford, let me ask you this.

If the Oil Industry (Since Big Oil is apparently a loaded term, I will stop using it) is as concerned about anything other than their bottom line, how is it that in the last 50 years we have seen, for all practical purposes, no advances in alternate energy from these companies. Can every single new idea have been a total flop? Really???

Add to that the following. We have seen the Oil Industry attempt to shoot down every single government effort just to make oil cleaner, to make the use of oil more efficient, to decrease our dependency by seriously pursuing alternate fuel concepts.

They have fought tooth and nail every step of the way on every front.

Add to that this little nut. When the oil disaster happened in the Gulf of Mexico, BP was using the same technology that was used to try and clean up the Exxon Valdez disaster decades ago.

There has certainly been many advances in ways to improve oil production since the EV fiasco, but apparently no one has been able to find ways to advance the cleanup technology. How strange. Or is it that the latter simply was not important to them.

Yes, of course this industry is keeping their eye on what the next thing will be. They know better the most how much oil is left. And when that supply is all but gone, and ONLY then, will they suddenly, magically, find new resources to tap to keep making money.

To paraphrase an old saw, I'm not imagining a controlling cartel, if that is exactly what they are doing!
Gordian Knot, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

Of course, there have been changes.
Leaded Gasoline was phased out of the USA starting 35 years ago.
ULSD is now required virtually everywhere.
Sulfur emissions have been regulated on power plants for years.
Some areas mandate 10% Ethanol in all the gasoline sold
Some areas mandate 5% Biodiesel in all diesel sold.
Catalytic Converters have been used on cars for 35 years, and today's cars run much cleaner than those from 50 years ago. 
Diesel Particulate Filters, for better, or worse, are now mandated on all new Diesel vehicles.
And, of course, there have been fuel efficiency standards.  Slow, but they are there.  My '76 AMC Hornet would struggle to get near 20 MPG.  Now, most similar vehicles have a 25% to 50% fuel efficiency improvement (mid 20's to low 30's), and it makes a difference.  Although, I do believe that they could do better.
One of the problems with modern cars is that they keep adding more and more features.  So, while a 1960's VW bug, powered by a modern engine might get 100 MPG, nobody wants to drive a 60's bug, except for the classic appeal.  A 60's death-trap on wheels would not sell today, and would generate more complaints from various so-called consumer protection groups.

Have you ever run your house power needs 100% off of solar panels?
I have.
It was a struggle.

What I will say is that solar panels are ungodly expensive, and produce a lot less power than most people desire.  And, they are not without problems.  It is easy to destroy some very expensive batteries.  But, perhaps the first thing that one must do before converting to solar is to choose to cut one's power consumption by a factor of 10.  As a society, we would be better off to forget the solar, and have everyone cut their power consumption by a factor of 10, but that isn't going to happen anytime soon.

I don't know if oil containment and skimming technology has improved.  I found it disturbing that many oil skimmers did not respond to the BP crisis.  For example, the State of Oregon kept several skimmers in reserve for a potential spill in the Columbia River.

What I will say is that I believe that BP's response to the crisis was truly incompetent.  While one can't prepare for every disaster, they need to plan for and practice emergency response for various situations.  Their first response should have been removing the old, leaky pipe and installing a new pipe, something that took BP over 2 months to do.

As far as other energy, there have been huge investments in nuclear power, of dubious success, and still generating a minority of the world's energy.  Fusion Energy has already taken billions of dollars worth of investment, and will likely eventually come into general use, but certainly won't be a magic bullet.

What we really need to do is lower global energy consumption, but that is easier said than done. 
CliffordK, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

OK - I suppose GK is entitled to his opinion. Can we please try to return to the original topic? Geezer, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

Here's more by the Wall Street Journal on the company mentioned. It's called Range Fuels. Different process from the seaweed idea of course. Geezer, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

Though this may give some relief to land based bio fuel developments, I have serious reservations concerning any meddling with the oceans.

Bio fuel production is not the great panacea some would have us believe. Deforestation of the Amazon and Borneo rain forests (and others) is already a cause for concern. But here, at least, the damage is evident. My concern is, in part, that beneath the waves, a great deal can be hidden, thus keeping a check on such developments would prove far more difficult than land based production.

But my main concern is that the oceans play the most influential part in life on the planet. The consequences of playing God with the oceanic eco system could be devastating and far reaching. We may divide the oceans into the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic, Red sea, Baltic Sea etc. but nature has no such divides. A serious problem with a development off the Pacific coast of S. America could easily have consequences in the North Sea eventually. Containing any such problems which may arise would be nigh on impossible.

Our new source of energy needs to be genuinely ecofriendly. At the moment, it looks like solar, wind and hydro are the only near alternatives.
Don_1, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

Following up Don's point - would we in England have to be very careful? we rely on ocean and weather streams for our climate (the UK is about level with Hudson Bay, Gulf of Alaska, Sea of Okhotst - all coldish places) and could a deforestation of part of the ocean floor have a knock on effect on the ocean currents.  imatfaal, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

Yes, and none of these improvements were made by the Oil Industry, and the Oil Industry tried to drag their feet or delay all of these improvements. Which was my point!

Geezer, you suppose I am entitled to my opinion? Geez, that's harsh. (Saying that jokingly!). I do happen to think this IS part of the original topic. That being said, I've more than made my point and we can agree to disagree. I won't belabor it any further.

Actually, this is the issue. A tiny percentage of the world's population has had the use of the majority of the energy resources up till now. A lot of the formerly technologically backwards countries (Can you say China?) are now raising their standard of living where they want what we have taken for granted for so long.

It is an untenable situation; there is not enough resources to go around when a significant part of the world's population want the same level of resources we use. So it is really a double whammy. We Americans are not going to willingly use less, and everyone else wants more.

If seaweed can become a part of the solution, by all means. We will be needing every ounce of resource we can get our hands on. It seems to me though that no finite resource is going to get us out of the situation of global demand.

Gordian Knot, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

Yes, it is an issue, but it's not the subject of this thread.
Geezer, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

Well, they've been using seaweed as fertilizer for a long time in some parts of the World, and I've never heard anyone complaining that we are depleting a vital natural resource - admittedly this is a small scale activity.

The problem is that solar, wind and hydro are not really "alternatives" because they can't supply anything like enough power.

Seaweed is just another way of harvesting solar energy. I don't think there is anything wrong with doing that, as long as we don't get too carried away. Geezer, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

The oceans cover about 71% of the Earth, although the continental shelves would be a much smaller percentage.

So, it is a vast area.  But, like many things humans do, we often carry our actions to excess.  A little seaweed would be fine...  taking all of it would not be a good idea.  Likewise, care should be taken with selective breeding, and importing "better" seaweed that we don't inadvertently destroy what is already there, or destroy what various sea creatures require.

We are already over-fishing many of the fisheries.  What is next? CliffordK, Tue, 24th Jan 2012

I certainly can't argue with that.

My worry is that, along with seaweed already harvested for other purposes, taking naturally occurring seaweed for bio fuels, if it proves successful, could become vast industry which might well be difficult, if not impossible, to regulate. It could also be that suppliers might 'farm' the most efficient seaweed, resulting in a similar monoculture scenario in coastal waters to the vast monoculture agriculture of terrestrial farmland.

Huge farms producing a single crop may be economical, but I believe we are only just learning what the consequences are for wildlife and climate. A similar situation beneath the waves would, as I have said, be difficult to regulate and far more difficult to study the effects of on both local and far distant waters.

From the vast resource that our oceans are, as Clifford pointed out, we are already managing to overfish some species. Then, as Imatfaal pointed out, oceanic currents are of great importance to world climate. We have no idea what clearing and farming sea beds might do to those currents. Just a relatively small change in the direction of the Gulf Stream at source could result in this warm current diverting up the western coast of the British Isles and on into Artic waters. Don_1, Wed, 25th Jan 2012

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