Quantcast
Business

Can Algae Power Our World?

It has often been used as a farmland fertilizer, and in some communities it is eaten as a vegetable, but now researchers believe that seaweed could power our cars and heat our homes too.

The seaweed is being scooped up from the Baltic Sea, along Sweden’s southern coast, in order to be converted to biogas. Photo credit: Vivian Husa, www.seeweeds.uib.no

One species of algae in particular, sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina), is exciting scientists from Norway. It grows prolifically along the country’s coasts and, as its name suggests, contains a lot of energy—about three times as much sugar as sugar beet. That makes it suitable for turning into food and fuel.

Sugar kelp uses excess nitrogen in the sea, and so cleans up fertilizer pollution. However, it can grow so fast it can be clog beaches and needs to be removed, so finding an economic use for it would solve many problems.

Scientists are competing to see who can get convert seaweed into fuel most efficiently.

One of them is Fredrik Gröndahl, a KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher and head of the Seafarm project. He believes the algae are being upgraded from an environmental problem into a valuable natural resource and raw material.

“The fact is that algae can absorb nitrogen from the water as effectively as a wastewater treatment plant,” Gröndahl says,

Eco-friendly resource

In some places, it is so prolific that it disrupts normal activities along the shoreline, but Trandahl’s project converts algae into eco-friendly food, medicine, plastic and energy. “We see algae as a resource,” he says. “We collect excess algae along the coasts, and we cultivate new algae out at sea.”

The seaweed is being scooped up from the Baltic Sea, along Sweden’s southern coast, in order to be converted to biogas. It is a coast rich with the seaweed, and the city of Trelleborg estimates that its beaches host an excess of algae that is equivalent to the energy from 2.8 million litres of diesel fuel.

The first algae farm is already up and running, near the Swedish town of Strömstad, in the waters that separate the country from Denmark. The Seafarm project will, according to Gröndahl, contribute to the sustainable development of rural districts in Sweden. “We create all-year-round jobs,” he says.

One example is in the “sporophyte factory farms” on land where, to begin with, the algae are sown onto ropes. When miniature plants (sporophytes) have been formed, they sink and are able to grow in the sea. After about six months, when they algae have grown on the ropes, they are harvested and processed on land through bio-refining processes.

Grow rapidly

“It will be an energy forest at sea,” Gröndahl says. “We plan to build large farms on two hectares right from the start, since the interest in the activities will grow rapidly when more farmers and entrepreneurs wake up to the opportunities and come into the picture.

“In 15 years’ time, we will have many large algae cultivations along our coasts, and Seafarm will have contributed to the creation of a new industry from which people can make a living.”

Another line of research, using the same kind of seaweed, has been revealed by Khanh-Quang Tran, an associate professor in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Energy and Process Engineering. He has been producing what he calls bio-crude.

“What we are trying to do is to mimic natural processes to produce oil,” says Khanh-Quang Tran, whose results have been published in the academic journal, Algal Research. “However, while petroleum oil is produced naturally on a geologic timescale, we can do it in minutes.”

Using small quartz tube “reactors”—which look like tiny sealed straws—Tran heated the reactor, containing a slurry made from the kelp biomass and water, to 350˚C at a very high rate of 585˚C per minute. The technique, called fast hydrothermal liquefaction, gave him a bio-oil yield of 79 percent. That means that 79 percent of the kelp biomass in the reactors was converted to bio-oil.

A similar study in the UK, using the same species of kelp, yielded only 19 percent. The secret of much higher yields, Tran says, is the rapid heating.

Carbon-neutral

Biofuels that use seaweed could lead humans towards a more sustainable and climate-friendly lifestyle. The logic is simple: petroleum-like fuels made from crops or substances take up CO2as they grow and release that same CO2 when they are burned, so they are essentially carbon-neutral.

The problem of using food crops has led many to question whether bio-fuels are a solution to climate change. So to get around this problem, biofuel is now produced from non-food biomass, including agricultural residues, and land-based energy crops such as fast-growing trees and grasses.

However, seaweed offers all of the advantages of a biofuel feedstock, and has the additional benefit of not interfering with food production.

But while Tran’s experiments look promising, they are what are called screening tests. His batch reactors are small and not suitable for an industrial scale. Scaling up the process requires working with a flow reactor, one  with a continuous flow of reactants and products. “I already have a very good idea for such a reactor,” he says.

Tran is optimistic that he can improve on a yield of 79 percent, and is now looking for industrial partners and additional funding to continue his research.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Wall Street Journal Runs Op-Ed Advocating Against Action on Climate Change

Future Investments in Fossil Fuels Look Dim

Scientists Say Fracking Makes Climate Change Worse, Not Better

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Renewable Energy
Storage solutions, such as Tesla's Powerwall domestic battery, are "moving from the grid to the garage to the landing at home." Tesla Motors

Battery Storage Revolution Could 'Sound the Death Knell for Fossil Fuels'

If we want to accelerate the world's renewable energy transition, we'll have to modernize the electric grid and we'll need much better batteries. Just look at Germany, which generates so much clean energy on particularly windy and sunny days that electricity prices are often negative.

Sure this is good news for a German person's wallet, but as the New York Times noted, "Germany's power grid, like most others around the world, has not yet adapted to the increasing amounts of renewable energy being produced."

Keep reading... Show less

The Future of Food: 8 Business Leaders Investing to End Slaughterhouses

From Silicon Valley tech moguls to business executives and entrepreneurs, these people know that the future of food means not slaughtering animals.

Keep reading... Show less

Oil Spill Spreading in East China Sea 'Now the Size of Paris'

By Andy Rowell

There are increasing environmental and health concerns surrounding the oil spill in the East China Sea from the Iranian registered tanker, the Sanchi, which sank on Monday carrying 136,000 tons, or one million barrels, of a highly flammable oil mix called condensate.

The tanker had burned for a week before exploding after colliding with another ship on Jan. 6, with all 32 crew now presumed dead or missing.

Keep reading... Show less

‘Tide Pod Challenge’ Highlights Danger of Colorful Laundry Packets

By Samara Geller

An unbelievably dumb and extremely dangerous dare has gone viral on social media. It's the "Tide Pod Challenge": biting down on the small, colorful—and potentially poisonous—packets of liquid laundry detergent until they burst in your mouth. Children, teens and young adults are posting videos of themselves taking the challenge—with the gagging, spitting and coughing that follows.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Arizona lost out on $27 million of revenue during the 2013 government shutdown, with the Grand Canyon alone amounting for $17 million of it. Anna Irene / Flickr

National Parks, Monuments May Remain Open But Unstaffed if Government Shuts Down

You might want to reconsider your plans if you intend to visit a national park this weekend. While the park might be open, there probably won't be any rangers on site, which could pose a serious risk to safety.

The Trump administration is reportedly planning to keep many national parks and monuments open if the government shuts down on Friday, the Washington Post reported. The move is meant to avoid the public outrage sparked by the closure of parks and memorials during the 2013 shutdown.

Keep reading... Show less
Adventure

Divers Discover World’s Largest Flooded Cave

Diving enthusiasts, could this be your next great adventure?

Archaeologists and divers with Gran Acuífero Maya (GAM)—a project dedicated to the study and preservation of the Yucatan peninsula—claim to have discovered the world's longest underwater cave just outside of Tulum, Mexico.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Pexels

3 Reasons to Be Hopeful About Our P​lanet in 2018

By Elizabeth Sturcken

Feeling down about our planet in 2018? Don't!

There are many reasons to be hopeful around environmental action in the new year—and if the following developments don't make you feel better, I've prescribed some action steps at the end that are guaranteed to set you on a healthier, happier path.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!