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

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January 19, 2012

BAL researchers say a new engineered microbe makes seaweed a cost-effective source of biof...

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.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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16 Comments

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!

JohnRoux
20th January, 2012 @ 02:27 am PST

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.

Mark Smith
20th January, 2012 @ 03:36 am PST

Lets see this on the table, if allowed and congrats.

Dawar Saify
20th January, 2012 @ 03:42 am PST

@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.

Jared Booth
20th January, 2012 @ 06:09 am PST

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.

George Vergese
20th January, 2012 @ 06:53 am PST

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!

Q
20th January, 2012 @ 08:13 am PST

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.

Jim Sadler
20th January, 2012 @ 09:00 am PST

Come on down South of the Mason-Dixon line. We're up to our arses in Kudzu.

Zappenfusen
20th January, 2012 @ 09:21 am PST

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.

ralph.dratman
20th January, 2012 @ 09:39 am PST

@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.

Ethan Brush
20th January, 2012 @ 03:00 pm PST

Quote: "voice of dissent; quote: "Nobel Laureate Robert B. Laughlin exposes the consequences and limitations of biofuels from manure and corn ethanol to switchgrass and algae.

........

The energy industry's sudden interest in algae might also be part of this absurdity, unfortunately. Green politics powerfully encourages "greenwash," the practice of associating yourself with green causes to look more environmentally friendly than you actually are. Although the investments that the oil majors are presently making in algae look technically legitimate, they might just be public relations expenditures. We can't tell, for the amounts of money involved, though considerable, are smaller than the potential costs of taxation, regulation, and political vexations that might be visited upon them for not being sufficiently green. Absent some truly unprecedented discovery or breakthrough, it will be hard not to smile knowingly whenever world-famous geneticists begin explaining their strategic algae oil partnerships that involve no farming until sometime way in the future, if ever." Go to http://criticalenvironmentalism.org/2011/12/05/algae-biofuels/#comments

My comment: "...and how much do you think cleaning up"...the effects of.."the nuclear industry will cost? As with the previous century's "green" research INVESTMENT is required, or one can continue to pedal the myth that the notion of an "unsustainable economy" is NOT an oxymoron."...Also

...

"It is vital to realise that INVESTMENT also means investment in education"..."How myopic to assume that even the "most able" are unable to provide an answer in adulthood when they have received no encouragement (infact been actively dissuaded from, cajoled and FORCED not), to explore the alternative paradigms which inform such research as children.

Considering the blinkered attitude towards mycological and bacteriological research displayed by the academic institutions generally (revealed on my thread, "Mycological Environmentalism, Under-Reported/Researched?", go to http://medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3166 ), it is hardly surprising no one has an answer as yet.

Comment from Sean OHanlon on the same article: quote; "So Robert Laughlin shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1998. Good for him; But Algae cultivation is about Biology & Systems Engineering, not Physics. To me this is another case of someone who clearly hasn't spoken with any leading researchers in the field of algae R&D or attended a single conference to get a pulse on the state of the industry.

Fresh water? Why would we want clean water to grow algae? Not only does algae capture CO2 but it also has the ability to sequester heavy metals and other toxins that no reasonable person would want released into the air or water. In addition, Algae has the ability to cut energy consumption in Wastewater treatment plants by as much as 80 percent. Even if that number were only 20% it would still be a technology well worth pursuing."

Dr. Laughlin also chooses to narrowly focus on saltwater micro-algae. This is another major miscalculation. We have barely scratched the surface of what can be done by the over 100,000 species of micro-algae in the world. We haven't even started to take a serious look at the macro-algae that grow faster and have a higher sugar content. And as for: "there is no saltwater agriculture industry at the moment from which you can make crop comparisons" Not true, The Irish have been harvesting algae for centuries and Asia has been cultivating it for decades now. (Where do you think your sushi wrap comes from?) Algae is already being grown profitably as feed for livestock, pharmaceuticals, and DHA Omega 3"²s just to name a few.

The cost of producing biofuels is getting cheaper all the time while exploration, drilling, and refining oil is getting ever more difficult, costlier, and dangerous. (Let's not forget the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill that took 11 lives and went on for over 90 days just last year; Not to mention the environmental damage that will last for decades.) Take away the tax breaks and other advantages that petroleum currently enjoys and it immediately becomes economically unsustainable to the tune of ~$13/gallon and up for gasoline.

Thank you for your opinion Dr. Laughlin. However, Your opinion is clearly not supported by the facts."

Re: "clean" water (see above), there's a difference between "capture" and "proliferation", you can't continue to pollute the body (even when using maggots to clean-up a wound)." Go to http://medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?p=10703#10703

Gerard Hales
20th January, 2012 @ 03:14 pm PST

re; JohnRoux

By your own argument diverting molasses increases meat costs. Besides the whole bio-fuel thing is a waste of time and effort.

Slowburn
21st January, 2012 @ 12:42 am PST

When I see an development of this nature, I'm simultaneously fascinated and pensive. On the one hand, the full utilization of carbohydrates in macro seaweed is a very important step forward in the area of algal fuels. On the other hand, the history of introduced organisms is really, really bad; one can imagine the possibility of the new microbes escaping and creating a "seaweed plague", crashing the oceanic ecology. Green grey-goo anyone?

Mitch Amiano
21st January, 2012 @ 06:03 am PST

Ah, nevermind... I'm less pensive than fascinated now... they are using an enzymatic prep step to make the seaweed edible to the microbes. That could potentially apply very well to a range of algal feedstocks, depending on its sugar makeup.

What commenters seem to be missing is that these researchers aren't trying to boil an ocean, they are solving an engineering problem. The production process increases the payback of using seaweed feedstocks, so the overall efficiency of the process is potentially higher as a result of their research, irrespective of farming or harvesting methods.

Mitch Amiano
21st January, 2012 @ 06:16 am PST

Or more simply, create a microbe/bacteria/plankton which can live in sea water and use sunlight to crack water thus releasing Oxygen but more importantly hydrogen. Then you would have closer to 100% efficiency in Hydrogen production (the only cost would be the organisms life functions). Then just put the hydrogen into a fuel cell or burn it in a turbine and BOYAHH you have power for the grid, at no environmental cost and massive scale-ability opportunities.

Like always, removing the middle man (plants) is the key to reducing costs (in this case energy efficiency).

Just replicate the most successful species on the planet, bacteria. There is a reason why they where the first organisms to emerge and hugely out populate everything else (in terms of bio-mass and numbers) plus over 3.5billion years, they still do the same process to sustain their life functions.

I work in engineering and there is a saying "dont try reinvent the wheel". Same principal applies here.

Put simply we have 3 sources of energy on this planet; Sunlight, thermal from the planet and radioactive elements which degrade thus releasing thermal energy in the process. How hard can it be to fully develop the 3 technologies to extract the energy from these 3 inputs? Instead we milk fossil fuels which are just "concentrated sunlight".... Almost makes me cry lol.

But all that said, This wont happen as this idea would make energy too cheap and uncontrollable in terms of production. IE they cant milk you for money. They would rather short term profits and control than lowering energy costs which would give a huge boost to consumerism world wide (kick the economies into gear as they run on the consumer dollar) and also encourage business as energy costs fall - also increasing business PROFITABILITY which I thought people would be happy about?

I digress, this issue is about control rather than money I suspect. If you control energy, you control humanity by proxy.

cm
21st January, 2012 @ 01:46 pm PST

The seas are overfished. They are also getting increasingly polluted. The move towards biofuels will do the environment more harm than good. In agriculture, it is also raising the prices of staple foods. With the prices of bio oils going up, too. There is already a terrible movement to clear rainforests to plant Palm oil just to supply biofuels. This is encouraged by governments who are too short sighted. They care not of the global warming & deforestation.

Scientists who exploit bio fuels have no idea of the damage they will eventually cause to the environment. Bio fuels should be what is done with the leftovers, not what is done with the primary bio product.

Green energy really needs a body to oversee the implementation of ridiculous "Green energy" movements by stupid governments out to make a fast buck. It is time the U.N. has a solid body that oversees "war on the environment" or "unbridaled environmental destruction". These bodies cannot be run by politicians (they are, after all, POLITICIANS).

Nantha Kumar Nithiahnanthan
21st January, 2012 @ 08:54 pm PST
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