The numbers for productivity of seaweed are stunning compared to everything other than algae on land. The problem is the cultivation, growing the preferred species, harvesting it and getting it to shore for processing.

Prof. Avigdor Abelson of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Zoology and the new Renewable Energy Center, with his colleagues Dr. Alvaro Israel of the Israel Oceanography Institute, Prof. Aharon Gedanken of Bar-Ilan University, Dr. Ariel Kushmaro of Ben-Gurion University, and their Ph.D. student Leor Korzen are now developing methods for growing and harvesting seaweed as a source of renewable energy.

So far the research has been based on collecting wild specimens from patches of natural growth and interpolation the results.  It’s a certainty that when seaweed is ashore it’s a bountiful and a comparatively simple biomass to handle with high quality carbohydrate components.  Seaweed also grows rapidly, in an environment where its native thus presumably won’t need intervention for pests.  For many the seaweed potential answers the call to stop the fuel production on land.

Seaweed Species Caulerpa Sertularoides. Click image for the largest view.

Prof. Abelson notes seaweed can also clear the water of excessive nutrients that are caused by human waste or aquaculture, which disturb the marine environment.  Much of the land applied fertility that washes away is still ready for use at sea near the mouths of rivers.

That aspect of the potential of seaweed is a major part of the motivation.  Anywhere man sets out to produce food for humanity the normal ecosystem is going to be substituted with high single species productivity.  The drive to high productivity requires great costs in the land, fertility, seed, equipment, storage and processing.  Even when the food is consumed, the fertility is still, for the vast most part, lost and sent to disposal.  One can blame farmers, but in fact the bigger blame falls on those who eat.  Much goes to landfill or washes out to sea.

The effect is called eutrophication – a pollution of excess fertility that leads to excessive amounts of nutrients and detrimental algae or bacteria, which harms the natural ecosystem at sea.

Satellite View of Eutrophication. Click image for the largest view.

The researchers believe that producing biofuel from seaweed-based sources could solve problems that already exist within the marine environment.  Encouraging the growth of seaweed for the harvesting and conversion into biofuel could solve these environmental problems by extracting the excess fertility and bringing it back ashore.

The system that the Israeli researchers are developing is called the “Combined Aquaculture Multi-Use Systems” (CAMUS).  CAMUS takes into account the known realities of the marine environment and human activity in it.  . Professor Abelson explains that ultimately, all of these factors function together to create a synthetic “human-made ecosystem”.

The favored example used by the researchers is fish farming oysters.  The feeders produce pollution in the form of excess nutrients and are generally considered harmful to the marine environment, would become a positive link in a chain including seaweed.  Oysters just sit and suck in particles of food.  For the feeders to be economical the oyster population has to be dense.  Oysters produce excrement like all animals and that’s the big pollution.

But oyster excrement is great seaweed fertilizer and populating oyster beds with seaweed would sustain a much greater yield of seaweed.  Food, fuel and the remnants of the seaweed could be returned to the soil on land to make more oyster food.  It sounds like a virtuous cycle.

Abelson said, “By employing multiple species, CAMUS can turn waste into productive resources such as biofuel, at the same time reducing pollution’s impact on the local ecosystem.”

To some extent the ecosystem the team envisions will work naturally.  To find the economic breakeven is going to require a bit more balancing.  Nature may take care of much of that on its own, but harvesting the seaweed as well as concentrating the oysters or fish species by feeding is going to require some management.  Whatever naturally eats oysters and seaweed is going to come calling someday.

The research team is now working to increase the carbohydrate and sugar content of the seaweed for more efficient fermentation into bioethanol.  They believe that macroalgae will be a major source for biofuel in the future. The CAMUS system could turn seaweed into a sustainable bioethanol source that is productive, efficient, and cost-effective.

Seaweed Species Caulerpa Flexilia. Click image for the largest view.

These folks are the point of the spear into the seaweed field.  The press release doesn’t give much time to the inevitable problems when man concentrates cultivation of crops.  An opportunity exists that might be both a blessing and curse. The sea is a dynamic place whose “seasons” are more moderate than on land.  What will change will come fast, what the solutions will need to be will need to come faster – especially if there is investment involved.

The seaweed aquaculture game is now on!  Good Luck Out There!  The world needs your success.


1 Comment so far

  1. Matt Musson on March 9, 2012 7:33 AM

    Japanese researchers are pioneering the concept of biomining – using GMO seaweed to leach valuable heavy-metal minerals from sea water. They are concentrating on pulling gold and uranium from the ocean.

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