Could seaweed be an eco-fuel?

Science

- Mitch Wright

It’s already a popular ingredient for soups, sushi and even some cosmetics, but seaweed might also become a viable source of fuel to help power vehicles.

Brown seaweed (Saccharina latissima) is sweet, delicious and loaded with trace minerals and nutrients that make it common for use in broths and snack mixes, or eaten fresh, as well as extracts or thickening agents in cosmetic creams.

For his masters thesis, University of Victoria mechanical engineering student Aaron Philippsen examined the potential to engineer a sustainable biofuel industry using the kelp species Saccharina latissima.

Looking at the logistics and engineering required to assess whether it makes sense to further examine brown seaweed as a biofuel source, he determined there is significant capacity and economic promise. In short, the potential ethanol output makes sense compared to the greenhouse gas emissions and energy required for the system to be both profitable and sustainable.

“This research shows that there is good reason to look at this in more depth,” Philippsen says. “There is definitely more research to be done to design a truly sustainable seaweed bioenergy industry, but we’ve shown that fuel made from farmed seaweed can be produced with reasonable energy input and minimal greenhouse gas emissions.”

While Philippsen stipulates that more research—and consultation with stakeholders such as First Nations, environmental groups and the public—is required, a key to his research is that it proposes farming the kelp, rather than exploiting the natural resource stocks.

“Seaweed is a foundational part of our coastal cultures and the ocean ecosystem, and that will play a critical role in determining the feasibility of seaweed-based fuel in BC,” he says.

Ethanol produced from a BC-based industry could replace the imported ethanol currently added to the gasoline sold at our pumps. Also key to the profitability and sustainability of the proposal would be minimizing waste by using “co-products” from ethanol production to capitalize on the existing multi-million dollar markets for brown seaweed and exploring potential new markets, such as animal feed sales.

Another plus could be avoiding some the challenges of land-based farming and the food versus fuel debate, freeing up arable land previously used for biofuel production to instead be used for growing food.

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Keywords: seaweed, clean energy, environment, research

People: Aaron Philippsen


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