Researchers engineer microbe to make seaweed a cost-effective source of renewable fuel

Researchers engineer microbe t...
BAL researchers say a new engineered microbe makes seaweed a cost-effective source of biofuel and renewable chemicals (Photo: Shutterstock)
BAL researchers say a new engineered microbe makes seaweed a cost-effective source of biofuel and renewable chemicals (Photo: Shutterstock)
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BAL researchers say a new engineered microbe makes seaweed a cost-effective source of biofuel and renewable chemicals (Photo: Shutterstock)
BAL researchers say a new engineered microbe makes seaweed a cost-effective source of biofuel and renewable chemicals (Photo: Shutterstock)

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at biofuels that are derived from crops such as wheat, corn and sugar cane, is that they result in valuable land being taken away from food production. For this reason there are various research efforts underway to turn seaweed into a viable renewable source of biomass. Now a team from Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) claims to have developed a breakthrough technology that makes seaweed a cost-effective source of biomass by engineering a microbe that can extract all the major sugars in seaweed and convert them into renewable fuels and chemicals.

Because of its high sugar content, the fact it doesn't require arable land or freshwater to grow, and is environmentally friendly, seaweed is seen as an ideal global feedstock for the commercial production of biofuels and renewable chemicals. 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.

The BAL team's breakthrough, which could help make this underutilized resource much more economically attractive, centers around an enzyme that is able to unlock and metabolize the polysaccharides within the seaweed.

"About 60 percent of the dry biomass of seaweed are fermentable carbohydrates, and approximately half of those are locked in a single carbohydrate - alginate," said Daniel Trunfio, Chief Executive Officer at Bio Architecture Lab. "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."

BAL was a co-recipient of an award for the development of a process to convert sugars from seaweed into isobutanol from the U.S. Department of Energy's new Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E).

"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," says ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Jonathan Burbaum. "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."

The BAL team's breakthrough is detailed in an article entitled "An Engineered Microbial Platform for Direct Biofuel Production from Brown Macroalgae", which appears in the January 20 issue of Science.

The article\'s references to sugarcane should be replaced by palm oil or another biofuel feedstock. Sugarcane has been ruled by analysts as neutral in its effects on food scarcity. This is because, unlike corn etc., the bio-fuel from sugarcane (ethanol), is actually a CO-PRODUCT of the production process. i.e. it is made when you make sugar. So the more sugar you make, the more ethanol you can make too. This is because sugar production produces molasses, and the ethanol is extrated from molasses. You get it anyway. Many of the world\'s sugar producers are now doubling their revenue by making ethanol when they make sugar. Just consider Brazil. Sugarcane expansion itself is actually being driven by rising sugar consumption in India and China. As a bonus, you can make ethanol. In the past the molasses was used to make animal feed instead. Sugarcane is also the most efficient of all bio-fuel feedstocks - double bonus!
Mark Smith
That\'s coastal area is an enormous expanse and of course they ignore how heavily utilised most of that water is already. Note no actual numbers here.
Dawar Saify
Lets see this on the table, if allowed and congrats.
Jared Booth
@JohnRoux - I\'m not so sure that seaweed harvesting would reall need to take over a shore line. In most cases, this seaweed likes to grow in colder climates, and off rocky shores. We are not talking about confiscating Miami beach here. More like remote shores off Portland and Oregon.
George Vergese
Is there any processing that is being done on water hyacinth to generate energy from it. It grows wild in Kerala river waters and elsewhere globally and navigating through these weeds becomes a serious problem.
Many farmers are paid NOT to grow and produce for various reasons (politics is prob. number one). I personally know of thousands of acres of land that is wasting away - and the govt. PAYS the farmer to NOT produce!!! Of course our politicians are paid by special interest groups for oil and other petroleum - but come election and speech time - they will proclaim how \"green\" they are!
Jim Sadler
Water Hyacinths in South Florida grow at astounding rates. For some reason there has been a failure in the past in the economy of harvesting the plants. However there is now some interesting machinery for harvesting hyacinths and it just might work with ease. Out in the Everglades and in Lake biomass gets so thick that it forms islands that are more like land that water. These machines now efficiently gobble up these islands removing tons of hyacinths rather quickly. The front of these barges looks like a paddle wheel and the spinning wheels just pushes the plant material up on deck. It works quite nicely.
Come on down South of the Mason-Dixon line. We\'re up to our arses in Kudzu.
I don\'t think the necessary amount of seaweed or similar vegetation could be gathered and processed for anything like a reasonable cost, whether measured in dollars or in energy used. I could of course be wrong. That is why Mark Smith\'s point, \"Note no actual numbers here\" is so pertinent. Without numbers, it\'s only a daydream.
Ethan Brush
@mquinn6: they do that for many reasons, including huning and wldlife preservation, and it is very beneficial because if the soil didn\'t have a year to rest every now and then it would become infertile. That is simple farming bro. The government does that so that the farmer doesn\'t go bankrupt when letting his land recover nutrients for a season. I love this idea. Seaweed is the fastest growing plant in the world, faster than bamboo even, and grows up to 3 feet per day. It is amazing stuff, if only it was a grain. Imagine, seaweed lasagna or frosted seaweed flakes. Sweet.