Seaweed is one of those plants that shows up where you might not expect it, like sushi rolls, fertilizer, and even tooth paste. One day soon, it may also show up in your gas tank, as scientists explore its potential as a biofuel.
In the search for a biofuel that doesn’t run on edible crops, some researchers are looking at seaweed as a potential contender. It has several natural advantages over land-based plants, most importantly the lack lignin, which gives land-based plants the rigidity to resist gravity and grow upwards. Lignin is resistant to degradation, making these earth-bound plants difficult to convert into fuel. But since seaweed floats in the water, it doesn’t have any lignin, making it much easier to break down into usable fuel. And yes, I do know that seaweed is edible, and that it is the staple of many diets…but by and large it is an unexploited crop with a lot of potential.
Seaweed can be converted into several different biofuels, depending on the process used, producing either seaweed oil, ethanol, or even methane (natural gas.) Since seaweed thrives off of nitrogen, a common ingreditent in many fertilizers, it could be used to clean up farm runoff in polluted rivers. An environmental double-whammy.
Unfortunately, oil prices will have to be near $300 a barrel before seaweed fuels can be economically viable, though there are already plans for combining off-shore wind farms with seaweed harvesting operations. We couldn’t just run out and harvest all the seaweed we find either, as they could destroy delicate food chains that rely on seaweed for food and shelter.
It also takes about 3.7 metric tons of seaweed to make one barrel (42 gallons) of fuel. That’s a lot of kelp. But combined with algae fuel prospects that estimate we could replace 17% of our oil use with ocean-farmed fuels, we may find ourselves turning more and more to the ocean to fuel our lives. Just don’t expect to fill up your car with seaweed juice anytime soon, but perhaps one day coastal communities will thrive off of their own locally-grown fuels.
Source: Discovery News
Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs. You can read about his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout or follow his non-nonsensical ramblings on Twitter @harshcougar.