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New Study: Biofuel From Seaweed - It’s All About The Microbes

Jan. 19, 2012 | KUOW
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Ashley Ahearn

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  • Seaweed grows faster than corn and produces more biomass per acre, without competing with food crops. credit: Bio Architecture Lab
  • Bio Architecture Lab is piloting a facility in Chile that will convert seaweed into several thousand gallons of ethanol this year. credit: Bio Architecture Lab
Seaweed grows faster than corn and produces more biomass per acre, without competing with food crops. | credit: Bio Architecture Lab | rollover image for more

Those floating mats of brown seaweed you see along the coast might make up part of the ethanol in your gas tank someday.

Scientists believe seaweed could be an ideal feedstock for biofuel. It grows faster and produces more biomass per square acre than corn – and it doesn’t compete with other food crops for water use or farm acreage.

But to get the fuel out of seaweed you need microbes.

These single-celled organisms are key to breaking down feedstocks– like sugarcane, corn – and seaweed – to make fuel like ethanol.

A team of researchers in Berkeley, California has developed a microbe tailor-made for the job. Their research was published today in the journal Science.

Yasuo Yoshikuni, the Chief Science Officer of Bio Architecture Lab – the company that developed the microbe, explains:

“Our microbes are engineered so it can break down sugars in seaweed and metabolize and convert the sugars in the seaweed into renewable fuels and chemicals in a single step.”

Right now the company has seaweed farms in Chile and it’s starting a pilot project to produce a few thousand gallons of ethanol from seaweed this year.

About 15 million tons of seaweed is cultivated each year, mostly for consumption in Asia. But Yoshikuni says seaweed could be grown for biofuel right here on the West Coast.

“The seaweed grown in Northwest California they are brown seaweed that we can convert into fuels and chemicals using our microbes. There is definitely a potential,” he says.

The company hopes to bring seaweed biofuel to market within the next four years.

© 2012 KUOW
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