Biofuels derived from land-based food sources such as corn have been around for a long time. They are increasingly being criticized because creating the biofuel involves turning a crop that has value as a food into ethanol. People need to eat more than they need to drive. Furthermore, processing the feedstock is expensive, and biofuel production is highly subsidized in order to keep costs at an affordable level.
The Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) technology allows seaweed to be used in much the same way. It involves using an engineered enzyme that is able to draw out and metabolize polysaccharides from the seaweed. To put its capability into perspective consider this:
According to BAL, less than three percent of the coastal waters globally is all that’s required to produce enough seaweed capable of replacing over 60 billion gallons (227 billion liters) of fossil fuel annually.
Daniel Trunfio, Chief Executive Officer at Bio Architecture Lab, explained:
About 60 percent of the dry biomass of seaweed are fermentable carbohydrates, and approximately half of those are locked in a single carbohydrate – alginate. Our scientists have engineered an enzyme to degrade and a pathway to metabolize the alginate, allowing us to utilize all the major sugars in seaweed, which therefore makes the biomass an economical feedstock for the production of renewable fuels and chemicals.
Dr. Jonathan Burbaum, program director at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, would seem to be impressed:
BAL’s technology to ferment a seaweed feedstock to renewable fuels and chemicals has suggested an entirely new pathway for biofuels development, one that is no longer constrained to terrestrial sources. When fully developed and deployed, large scale seaweed cultivation combined with BAL’s technology promises to produce renewable fuels and chemicals without forcing a tradeoff with conventional food crops such as corn or sugarcane.
BAL believes that through this technology, seaweed from less than three percent of the world’s oceans would have the potential to replace more than 60 billion gallons of fossil fuel. That amounts to a small fraction of what is needed in terms of being able to power all of the cars on the planet but as engines become more fuel efficient, it would be enough to make a significant dent.
The downside, at this point, is the cost. According to Ben Graziano, technology commercialization manager at the Carbon Trust, the cost of production is around five times what it would need to be in order to create an affordable fuel:
From what I know of the use of seaweed in general, the costs are still five times higher than they need to be to get to a reasonable fuel price. The use of genetically modified microbes could be a concern in Europe – where the perception of negative impacts can be quite harmful – but less so in the US and elsewhere. But the potential is certainly there, not least because most of the Earth is covered in water. If they can get the scale up and the costs down, it has huge potential.