Seaweed biofuel projects receive DOE funding

Two technologies that could allow cars and trucks to run on seaweed biofuel are currently being developed by the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The projects have received a combined $2.5 million (€2 million) in funding from the DOE.

Macroalgae, to give seaweed its technical name, is most commonly grown for human consumption. However, scientists at PNNL believe that it could also become an economically viable renewable energy source, without using synthetic fertilisers or the land and fresh water that's currently used for food production. 

According to a statement, the DOE estimates that the US could produce enough macroalgae to meet 10% of its energy needs for transportation. However, to realise this potential, new technology and innovative engineering approaches will be required to boost production.


Finding the best location

Key to boosting seaweed production is finding the best location and conditions to grow it in, something PNNL researchers are currently working on. Scientists at the lab are developing a set of advanced modelling tools to predict the best locations and times to efficiently cultivate seaweed.

The project will see existing modelling tools integrated to evaluate seaweed growth potential, nutrient availability, and how natural phenomena such as wind, currents, tides, waves and storm surges could affect the productivity of manmade seaweed farms.

PNNL ocean scientist Zhaoqing Yang is leading the project from PNNL's Seattle office. He will collaborate with colleagues at PNNL, Georgia Tech, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Oregon State University.


Reducing the costs of seaweed

Another PNNL team is developing an autonomous cultivation system that runs along a 5km carbon-fibre rope, which it hopes will enable a greater amount of seaweed to be grown at lower cost.

The longline system will be kept afloat by free-floating buoys equipped with sensors that track the farm's position, speed of movement, underwater light exposure and more. Data from the sensors will automatically calculate growth of two species of kelp that grow along the line. The line's carbon fibre will be made with composite waste materials from the aviation industry. PNNL calls its system the Nautical Offshore Autonomous Device, or NOMAD.

PNNL engineer Michael Huesemann is leading the project, in collaboration with colleagues at PNNL, Colorado State University, Composite Recycling Technology Center, Reliance Laboratories and Marine Agronomics, LLC.



The two seaweed technologies are among 18 new projects receiving $22 million in funding from DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, also known as ARPA-E. The PNNL projects full under ARPA-E's Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources program, or MARINER, which aims to create tools to enable the mass production of marine biomass for marine biofuels and bio-based chemicals.

The advanced modelling tools project will receive $2 million in funding over two years, the automatic cultivation system project will receive $500,000 in funding over one year. 

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