Energy Dept. Seeks A Few Good (Really, Really Good) Seaweed Farmers

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Did you know that the amount of commercially produced seaweed almost hit the mark of 25 million metric tons last year? China and Indonesia dominate the global seaweed-to-food market, and now the Department of Energy has been casting a hungry eye on the potential for the US to get in on the action, with a particular focus on converting seaweed to biofuel and other high value products.

Of course, there is a problem. Growing seaweed — aka macroalgae — for food is one thing. The algae-to-energy cycle is quite another thing entirely. That’s why the Energy Department has called upon its cutting edge funding division, ARPA-E, to put out a call for the super macroalgae farmer of the future.

Desperately Seeking Energy Solutions

ARPA-E is the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy. It’s modeled on the Defense Department’s legendary DARPA. Both agencies are focused on kickstarting game-changing, transformational technology that the private sector considers too risky. These projects wouldn’t get out of the lab without public support, so group hug for all us taxpayers.

That key word is transformational. To make a dent on the ARPA-E radar for funding, you have to fit this mold:

ARPA-E projects have the potential to radically improve U.S. economic prosperity, national security, and environmental well being. We focus on transformational energy projects that can be meaningfully advanced with a small investment over a defined period of time. Our streamlined awards process enables us to act quickly and catalyze cutting-edge areas of energy research.

ARPA-E was established in 2007 under the Bush Administration, but it wasn’t funded immediately and it didn’t kick into gear until the early years of the Obama Administration. CleanTechnica was among those wondering if the agency would be able to get off the ground, but it did.

ARPA-E started off with a bang. It launched a full 37 projects in 2009, including a cutting edge “artificial leaf” solar energy project. It started 2010 with another round covering carbon capture, energy storage and electrofuels.

In addition to mechanical and chemical systems, the world of biology has come into the ARPA-E embrace. The famous fuel-secreting bacteria is one early example.

More recently, just last December ARPA-E put word out for high tech ways to improve root systems in agricultural crops, with the aim of soil improvement and carbon sequestration.

Why Biomass?

Compared to the flood of exciting news about the latest breakthroughs in photovoltaics and wind energy technology, biofuel seems a bit old school.

However, ARPA-E points out that so far, biomass is the single biggest renewable contributor to the nation’s energy mix. That’s about 5% for primary energy supply and 5% for transportation, for those of you keeping score at home.

ARPA-E is looking to the future:

In the future, biomass-derived energy has the potential to play an even bigger role in the nation’s energy portfolio. The ability to produce sufficient quantities of biomass offers the U.S. strategic flexibility to exploit carbon-neutral feedstock for fuels, biogas/synthesis gas, heat & power, and electricity.

The agency sees rough seas ahead for land-based crops (and for that matter, solar and onshore wind farms) in terms of competition for land and fresh water, and increasingly difficult harvest cycles due to climate change. Harvesting, shipping and other logistics also involve future challenges for land based energy crops.

The Seaweed Farmer Of The Future

That brings us to ARPA-E’s newly discovered interest in seaweed farming.

The agency has been tracking recent macroalgae production gains in Asia, where conditions are similar to that of the US marine Economic Zone.

Based on its analysis, ARPA-E figures that combined brown and red macroalgae farming in the US could yield about 300 million dry metric tons annually. When converted to energy, that could add up to about 10% of the nation’s transportation needs.

ARPA-E also brings up this little factoid:

The United States has the world’s largest marine Exclusive Economic Zone, an area of ocean along the nation’s coast lines which is equivalent to the total land area of all 50 states.

Who knew? The implications for commercial development are enormous:

Growing macroalgal biomass in the oceans offers a unique opportunity to sidestep many of the challenges associated with terrestrial biomass production systems, particularly the growing competition for land and freshwater resources, which are likely to result from the 50 to 100% increase in demand for food expected for 2050.

Global economic competition is at stake, too. In addition to China and Indonesia, about 50 countries already have some stake in seaweed farming.

The seaweed farming industry has been growing rapidly. Primarily due to scaling-up in China and Indonesia, ARPA-E puts the increase at six-fold in the past 25 years.

According to ARPA-E, though, conventional macroalgae farming is still a somewhat primitive art, driven by “low tech, labor-intensive methods” located at or near shorelines.

The MARINER Macroalgae Energy Program

Ramping up seaweed production into a commercial energy source is a whole ‘nother story. That’s where ARPA-E’s new MARINER (Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources) funding opportunity comes in.

The agency is looking for a holistic approach that includes harvesting, processing and transportation as well as increasing years.

In today’s world of high tech agriculture and advanced manufacturing, that translates into…

…new material and engineering solutions, and autonomous and robotic operations, as well as advanced sensing and monitoring capabilities.

Computer modeling, sensor platforms that can be deployed on site, and advanced breeding systems are also part of the plan.

The ultimate aim is to ramp up macroalgae farming to the point where it can compete with land-based biofuel feedstocks.

In other news, bacon-flavored, ocean cleaning seaweed is also on the horizon so keep an eye out for that.

You can check out the MARINER concept paper for full details, but for those of you on the go here is the challenge:

…to dramatically increase yield per unit of capital, reduce overall capital requirements and minimize the operating cost of macroalgae cultivation, and to significantly increase the range of deployment by expanding into more exposed, off-shore environments.

If you think you’re up to the challenge, start sending those cards and letters now. ARPA-E is looking for love notes concept submissions by Valentine’s Day 2017 (yes, Valentine’s Day).

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Image (screenshot): via ARPA-E.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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