Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) are working to power homes and vehicles with fuel made from seaweed grown at large-scale offshore farms. The project will be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
WHOI was awarded $5.7 million from ARPA-E’s Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER) Program for two projects that develop tools and technology to advance the mass production of seaweed for biofuels and bio-based chemicals.
As biologist Scott Lindell, who is leading the research effort at WHOI, explains: ”The MARINER program addresses a critical challenge that land production systems are unlikely to solve. How do we meet growing global biofuel needs and also meet the 50 to 100 percent increase in demand for food expected by 2050? Seaweed farming avoids the growing competition for fertile land, energy intensive fertilizers, and freshwater resources associated with traditional agriculture.”
Currently in the U.S., seaweed is used mainly in food and the majority of it comes from imported farmed product or wild harvests. Expanding seaweed farming domestically can create jobs and regenerate working waterfronts. The ARPA-E estimates that in the U.S. brown and red seaweed farming have the potential to produce about 300 million dry metric tons per year. This quantity can fuel about 10 percent of USA’s annual transportation needs.
WHOI will try to develop a breeding program for sugar kelp – ‘Saccharina latissima’, one of the most commercially important species. Lindell says the team anticipates to develop novel genomic tools that will accelerate the production of improved plants while decreasing the need for expensive offshore field evaluations.
WHOI will partner in the project with the University of Connecticut-Stamford, the USDA Agriculture Research Service at Cornell and GreenWave.
The remaining funding will be used by a team from the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering department to develop an autonomous underwater observation system for monitoring large-scale seaweed farms for extended periods of time without human intervention.
The WHOI team will outfit an unmanned underwater vehicle with acoustic, optical, and environmental sensors to monitor seaweed growth and health, equipment status, and water column properties, such as nutrient content.