Monday, March 19

Japanese scientist turns seaweed into fuel

Things are looking even more shaky in the Middle East and gas prices are projected to soar this summer despite the fact that the US has quadrupled the number of domestic oil rigs drilling. This is not to mention that oil is a natural and nonrenewable source on this planet.

Good news: scientists at Bio Architecture Lab in Berkeley, California led by co-founder Yasuo Yoshikuni have refined the process of turning brown seaweed into a renewable fuel. The 2 and a half years of fine-tuning was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The problem with breaking down the high sugars of seaweed into ethanol is the presence of the "alginate" sugar--a problem of which has been deemed to be unsolvable until now. Yoshikuni and his team have genetically engineered E. coli splicing in a section of a known metabolizer of alginate. And this was no easy task considering Yoshikuni and his team had to successfully isolate a 36,000 base pair DNA fragment (source).

So why is this great news? Imagine a cheap alternative to current renewable gases. Corn is the current heavyweight, sucking in so much water (and tax dollars).
 “When you grow corn on land, there’s basically a fixed amount of land, and if you were to increase the use of that corn for fuels, you are taking away the use of that corn for something else,” says BAL spokesman John Williams. Using just three per cent of the waters that can grow seaweed could produce 60 billion gallons of fuel—four per cent of the world’s annual fuel consumption (source).
Sounds great, right? Imagine the skeptics. Keep in mind, though, no one is proposing that seaweed bioethanol will overtake petroleum. But it will be making big progress with a small carbon footprint.

Bio Architecture Lab has made a few deals and now grows this brown seaweed in Chile, where it owns and operates four offshore farms and is currently developing storage facilities (source). The seaweed is grown on long submerged ropes. Also, it doesn't suck up resources like corn, it takes little space, and grows in virtually untouched areas. "Using 3 per cent of the world's coastlines we can replace 5 per cent of total oil consumption. That's 60 billion gallons of fuel," Dr Yoshikuni said (source).

Algal bloom of the coast of China during the Olympics
What's more, seaweed naturally absorbs industrial waste reducing algal blooms which are a whole 'nother cluster F we probably shouldn't get started on.

One of the biggest problems of this amazing advancement in renewable fuels is how to cultivate it year round.

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