Outside the Box – Seaweed
Seaweed has been used as a staple in human diets in Japan, Korea and China since prehistoric times. There are some 21 species used daily in Japan, and seaweed accounts for close to 10% of Japanese diets. Sometimes called Kelp, seaweed grows rapidly in underwater forests on shallow ocean bottoms. Kelp has high levels of iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and several trace minerals, and is therefore considered a multi-vitamin. Alongside its nutritional value, what else could seaweeds be useful for? Some think that it could be a viable source of renewable energy.
One of the biggest criticisms aimed at biofuels is that are derived from crops and thus take valuable land away from food production. Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) claims to have developed a technology that makes seaweed a cost-effective source of energy. The process would extract all the major sugars in seaweed and then convert them into renewable fuels and chemicals. BAL says that it will take less than 3% of the global coastal waters to produce enough seaweed to replace 60 billion gallons of fossil fuels annually – to put this in perspective, the United States used 171 billion gallons of fossil fuels in 2005 just for our transportation needs.
Researchers from Israel believe that producing biofuel from seaweed-based sources could solve already existing problems in the marine environment. Many coastal regions suffer from eutrophication due to pollution caused by human waste, agriculture and fish farming. Eutrophication leads to elevated levels of nutrients and harmful algae which can be very damaging to coral reefs. By employing multiple varieties of seaweeds which capture and bio-accumulate pollutants, eutrophication could be reduced in shallow water ecosystems.
One of seaweed’s most abundant sugars is alginate – a polymer that can’t be converted to ethanol. However, scientists at BAL believe that when combined with diced fresh seaweed, a fermentation process would take place that allows for the necessary transformation to take place. Thierry Chopin, at the University of New Brunswick, thinks that this process may not be as cost-efficient as others believe. He is also concerned that you would not be able to harvest year-round.
BAL is quick to respond, saying that they don’t expect it to solve the world’s oil problems, only to make a considerable contribution. Their purpose is to reduce our carbon footprint and for the technology to work in tandem with other alternative energy solutions such as wind and solar. Dutch company Ecofys is currently engaged in a project to extract seaweed biofuels from their coastline by late June 2012. They believe that seaweed and wind turbines are a good combination. When the wind farms are closed for shipping and commercial fishing operations, the seaweed farms can provide proteins for fish and livestock feed and can be used for the creation of energy.
While this is an energy source in the making, it is a promising sign for the future of renewable energy sources. As traditional and alternative energy firms continue to establish new avenues of power generation, it will allow us to reduce our dependence on oil and gas as well as to learn how to use these resources more efficiently. There is more than 200,000 miles of coastline in the world, a distance roughly equal to that from the Earth to the Moon. With the potential area for aquatic agriculture fields throughout the world, we can have high hopes that this technology will be mastered and provide for a great deal of our future energy needs.
The beautiful blue waters off of New Zealand's coast are home to many varieties of seaweed that could be the future of energy production. Image captured by WorldView-2 on October 15, 2011. Image Photo Enhanced by Apollo Mapping and courtesy of DigitalGlobe.