Scientists Hope To Farm The Biofuel Of The Future In The Pacific Ocean

2017-08-25T14:40:12+00:00 August 25, 2017|
The goal of removing the excess urchins is to allow young kelp plants to establish themselves and grow into a diverse, healthy kelp forest. (NOAA Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

(Click to enlarge) Kelp plants. (Credit: NOAA Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

The push for renewable energy in the U.S. often focuses on well-established sources of electricity: solar, wind and hydropower. Off the coast of California, a team of researchers is working on what they hope will become an energy source of the future — macroalgae, otherwise known as kelp.

(From NPR/ by Ari Shapiro) — The Pacific Coast is known for its vast kelp forests. It’s one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, and farming it requires no fertilizer, fresh water, pesticides, or arable land. “It can grow 2 to 3 feet per day,” says Diane Kim, one of the scientists running the kelp research project at the University of Southern California.

Kelp is transformed into biofuel by a process called thermochemical liquefaction. The kelp is dried out, and the salt is washed away. Then it’s turned into bio-oil through a high-temperature, high-pressure conversion process.

Some small companies are growing kelp as a substitute for kale in the U.S., but that’s exactly the problem – very, very few are doing it. Thus, the infrastructure and investment isn’t in place to make other products from kelp, like biofuel.

“We’re testing out a concept that would enable large-scale, open-ocean farming,” she says. “And what that would essentially do is grow enough kelp to make it economically feasible to make it cost competitive and maybe one day, provide a source of clean, sustainable, non-polluting source of energy to compete with fossil fuels.”

Twenty-five miles from downtown Los Angeles, on sunny Catalina Island, Kim and her colleagues operate a center called the Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies. The clean, deep waters off the island provide a great environment for research.

Harvesting kelp in California for commercial purposes is not unprecedented. “They did have these large boats that gave the kelp a haircut, harvesting kelp along the California coast,” Kim explains. During World War I, kelp was used to make gunpowder. By the 1960s, a company in San Diego harvested kelp to make products like alginate, which is a solidifying agent in ice cream and cosmetics. 

Here on Catalina Island, Kim and her colleagues are trying to build a machine that would raise and lower kelp beds to get sunlight in the shallow water and nutrients in the deep water. This would allow them to farm miles from shore. They call the device a “kelp elevator.”

There are real obstacles to creating large-scale kelp farms in the U.S., though.

Read the full article here: