Seaweed fuel is back 50 years after its first suggestion thanks to new technology. • Long Beach Post News – Long Beach, California

Researchers from the Kelp Biofuels project, a collaboration between USC’s Wrigley Environmental Research Institute and Lacanada’s Marine BioEnergy, are investigating the potential for large-scale cultivation of kelp. Growing on an industrial scale, this plant can be a source of food and fuel, as well as an environmentally friendly alternative to crude oil.

Seaweed is already grown for small foods in many Asian countries and some European countries. Some, like Norway, have started experimenting with making kelp-based fuel.

“Despite the fact that we have people with expertise, skills and resources, the United States is way behind when it comes to growing kelp,” he holds a PhD in biology and is the project’s chief scientist. Diane Kim said.

“We are a land of the sea,” she said. “We do not use this resource to any significant extent.”

Diane Kim, a senior researcher at the Kelp Biofuels Project, examines the leaves of giant kelp plants at USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina. (Photo by Alena Maschke)

Brian Wilcox, co-founder of Marine Bioenergy, said freshwater will be seen as a scarce resource in the near future and it will be important to develop agricultural technologies that can function without freshwater.

“People say freshwater will be oil for the 21st century,” said Wilcox. “What we have is a way to farm without fresh water.”

In particular, the potential of seaweed for the production of biofuels has long been known. Dr. Howard Wilcox, father of Brian Wilcox, first proposed a seaweed methane project in the early 1970s.

Seaweed and other plants can be converted into fuel through either fermentation or hydrothermal liquefaction.

The fermentation produces ethanol. It is an alternative fuel commonly made from corn in the continental United States.

In the kelp project, Wilcox is focusing on the hydrothermal liquefaction process, which results in a fuel that works like regular gasoline.

This procedure involves placing seaweed in an environment with pressurized hot water around 660 degrees Fahrenheit, which destroys its solid structure. The result is a liquid called Biocrude. It can be refined and pumped through a normal fuel pump, much like crude oil from fossils.

Since it does not have to fight gravity like terrestrial seaweed, the molecular structure of seaweed can be easily destroyed and is particularly suitable for the production of Bioklude. Seaweed is an important commodity because of its rapid growth rate of up to 1 foot per day.

“It grows so big, it grows for so long, and it’s a perennial,” said Brian Wilcox. Due to the nature of the perennials, they can be cut and do not have to be replanted with each harvest.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Navy, where Elder Wilcox was a civilian researcher, was considering alternative fuels because of the 1973 oil embargo. This is because it highlights an uncomfortable reliance on foreign oil and makes it vulnerable to foreign whims. Power.

However, with the lifting of the oil embargo, interest in alternative fuels decreased. “People weren’t as passionate about energy as they were in the early 1970s,” said Wilcox.

Young Wilcox began his nearly 40-year career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, giving up his interest in reviving his father’s project on weekends and evenings. He retired last year. “Now I can do it,” he said.

At the same time, the impending climate crisis has rekindled interest in alternative fuels.

The biggest challenge for large-scale seaweed production in the open ocean is to consistently provide plants like seaweed with both nutrients and sunlight. Sunlight is on the surface of the ocean, but most of the nutrients are in the deeper layers.

Wild plants find the necessary combination of these resources in coastal areas, where water depth fluctuates and nutrients are washed away from deeper ocean levels. But to grow seaweed to the extent necessary to meet the country’s energy needs, the rocky coast of the Pacific simply does not offer enough space to meet those conditions.

The space is only in the open ocean, and its depth has hitherto hampered the growth of important plants.

To tackle this challenge, the team behind the kelp biofuel project is pulling buoy plants up and down off the coast of Catalina between nutrient-rich and sunny plains. Developed “elevator”. The sea every day.

The question was how plants would react to the changes in the environment that come with this day trip.

“Some believed that seaweed would not survive. Some were very optimistic, ”said Kim. After 100 days of operating the kelp elevator, the promising result was that “kelp actually works well”.

Diane Kim, a senior scientist, and Andina Barrett, a postdoctoral fellow, inspect a naturally occurring seaweed bed in Parsons Landing, Catalina Island. (Photo by Maurice Roper / USC Wrigley Institute)

Not only did they survive well, but they also grew faster than their natural seaweed field counterparts used for comparison.

The next step will focus on the technical aspects of the project. Seaweed elevators have simulated the depth of circulation plants must endure, but coastal buoys are not a practical solution for large-scale production.

Instead, Marine BioEnergy, under the direction of Wilcox and his wife Cindy, is developing a huge grid design concept that is pulled into every corner by an underwater drone and kept stable by a programmable float day and night and out of the way of ships or storms like the magical carpets of the Marine.

“We’re approaching a really great system for kelp farming,” said Wilcox. He said the patented system only uses existing technology but needs to be tested for functionality in open sea environments.

Upon completion, Marine BioEnergy predicts that an underwater kelp farm could use the same size water as Utah to meet about 10% of the country’s energy needs.

Seaweed fuel is competitive with crude oil at an average price of $ 60 a barrel. Subsidies like climate tax credits could help the industry get started, Wilcox said.

“The government of the world has to decide. We won’t wait until tomorrow. We’ll start today, ”he said. “We will no longer burn fossil fuels.”

Researcher Kim said growing seaweed to an extent that is economically viable, as this latest project has promised, has so far been a major challenge in bringing seaweed fuel to market. It was.

“In all honesty, biology isn’t that complicated,” she said. “But creating a buy-in and creating a market that doesn’t currently exist is a challenge.” With the results of this pilot project, the potential of the seaweed filling station is finally within reach. It seems.

“Now we have the technology to realize the potential of seaweed on the scale we’re talking about,” she said. “One day I can send seaweed into my car and remember when it started.”

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