There they go again. Apparently while the attention of US President* and noted fossil fuel fan Donald J. Trump was elsewhere, his own US Department of Energy awarded $22 million in grants aimed at pushing conventional fuel aside by accelerating the development of next-generation biofuel. The funds came through the agency’s ARPA-E funding program for cutting edge technology, so it’s no surprise that the pot will be shared among research teams focusing on a relatively new and unusual biofuel crop, namely, seaweed.
Seaweed Biofuel By Any Other Name
ARPA-E prefers the name “macroalgae,” but that’s just fancyspeak for seaweed. Whatever you call it, the idea is to pivot away from dependency on conventional land based crops — especially corn and other food crops — and introduce seaweed biomass for biofuel.
Freeing up at least some biofuel production from water resource issues is also an important plus for seaweed.
According to the Department of Energy, US offshore resources could support enough seaweed production to supply up to 10% of the current demand for transportation fuel.
Seaweed farming may sound easy, but it’s not. Aside from the imperative to avoid harmful side effects on the marine environment, growing and harvesting seaweed for biofuel at scale presents a number of technological problems.
Nevertheless, the Energy Department has been casting an envious eye on seaweed production in Asia and other parts of the world, and the agency is interested in some tweaks that could give US seaweed farmers an edge:
Achieving this heightened productivity requires a technology-driven approach focusing on transformative, systems-level improvements and engineering, including advanced research in farm design and autonomous operation.
As for why us taxpayers are footing the bill to develop the seaweed biofuel farm of the future, it’s the familiar story of private investors being leery of dropping dollars on unproven technology:
Because impactful macroalgae fuel production remains an extremely ambitious prospect, overcoming the early-stage R&D challenges presented by MARINER requires cross-disciplinary collaboration, drawing on fields such as cultivation and harvesting systems, advanced components, computer modeling, aquatic monitoring, and advanced breeding and genetics tools to achieve program goals.
An earlier MARINER round focused on robotics, so let’s see what’s up with the new round.
18 Projects For Seaweed Biofuel
The 18 projects cover a lot of ground, including autonomous systems, computer modeling, renewable energy and genetic engineering. ARPA-E highlights these two:
University of Alaska Fairbanks gets $500,000 to develop scale model farms for sugar kelp, leveraging technologies used in commercial fishing. The test models will be deployed in New England as well as Alaska.
University of Southern Mississippi gets $500,000 to develop “semi-autonomous” enclosures for mats of Sargassum. This one is especially interesting from a renewable energy point of view because it will use remote-controlled tugboats powered by wave energy. The tugs will move the mats from place to place, to optimize nutrient intake. In this manner the Sargassum mats could also double as a remedy for “dead zones” where excess nutrients occur.
Another $500,000 award to the University of Southern Mississippi involves a “novel and robust seaweed growth system” that can be positioned to avoid weather hazards and marine traffic. The school will also investigate a drone-enabled version of the system.
The other awardees are:
Catalina Sea Ranch: Based in California, the Catalina Sea Ranch team tackle the cultivation of giant kelp with a high efficiency direct-seeding process and mechanical “partial harvesting” process.
Fearless Fund: This DC outfit will also focus on free-floating mats of Sargassum, boosting efficiency with the help of satellite imagery and computer modeling.
Kampachi Farms, LLC: Ocean power also comes into play for Kampachi Farms of Hawaii, which will develop a nutrient delivery system with the help of current-powered pumps. A harvesting system that lends itself to renewable energy is also part of the plan.
Marine Biological Laboratory: Located on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the lab will take a look at deploying the “red” seaweed Eucheuma isiforme in the Gulf of Mexico and other tropical areas of the US waters where farming can take place all year.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory: Knowing PNNL, it’s no surprise that the lab is working on something that would be equally at home on a Mars colony: an autonomous seaweed “longline” modded out with GPS buoys and other sensors, along with “fully automated, high -speed seeding and harvesting machines and “state-of-the-art hydrodynamic modeling for device design and placement.”
The lab also nailed one of MARINER’s biggest awards — $2,025,986 — for a project aimed at reducing seaweed farming risks and costs through a better understanding of macroalgae systems, using “the best available regional and global modeling products.”
Trophic, LLC: This California’ based company will focus on kelp, “lifting” nutrients from deep ocean waters to speed growth. A system for maximizing sunlight exposure will also help accelerate the growth cycle.
C.A. Goudey and Associates: This Massachusetts firm will develop a crewless, autonomous “drone tug” that will enable seaweed farms to be located farther offshore.
Makai Ocean Engineering, Inc.: Hawaii’s Makai Ocean Engineering will work on a modeling system and other tools to assist in advanced seaweed farm design.
University of California, Irvine: The school will develop a marine modeling system “capable of capturing the complex interplay between ocean currents, surface waves, turbulence, farm canopy architecture, nutrient and light fields, and biological processes.”
University of New England: This school, located in Maine, will work on a predictive 3D modeling system to evaluate new and existing seaweed farm designs in the Gulf of Maine. One major aim of the project is to speed up the design and permitting process for seaweed farms.
University of California, Santa Barbara: This grant will help the UC-Santa Barbara team develop a sensing and monitoring system that will enable farmers to track factors influencing health and productivity.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution: The WHOI team will focus on the development of an autonomous system that deploys an unmanned underwater vehicle with equipped to monitor conditions below the surface.
WHOI also nailed down a grant of just over $3.7 million to develop improved strains of Saccharina, which is already a “commercially important” kelp variety.
University of Wisconsin: This grant will focus on optimizing breeding to scale up production:
…The team will use a combination of genome sequencing, optical mapping, and capture sequencing to create a genotyped strain collection — enabling the selection of the best performing farming traits from 50,000 possible crosses. The team will produce a specific set of genetic markers for traits controlling biomass growth rate, and low nutrient as well as temperature tolerance.
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Image: via Catalina Sea Ranch.