Turning seaweed into ethanol

Researchers may have broken the biofuel barrier. A new biotech discovery enables ethanol to be made from a common variety of brown seaweed. This would by-pass the biggest problem with corn ethanol and biodiesel—the world’s shortage of cropland.

The new ethanol process uses the familiar E. coli bacterium working on kombu, a variety of edible brown kelp, which is common in the world’s seas and oceans. It has been grown and harvested commercially by such countries as China, Japan, and Korea for hundreds of years. If you like sushi, it is the brown wrapping on your favorites.
 
The new process can turn a mixture of kombu and water, with the E. coli added, into a solution of about 5 percent ethanol in two days. Distill the ethanol from the water; put the water back into the ocean and “Voila”! Better yet, this happens at low temperatures, between 25 and 30 degrees C. Thus the ethanol can be produced without the use of additional costly energy—a big advantage over the current efforts to produce cost-effective ethanol from algae.
 
An analysis by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory suggests that the U.S. could supply one percent of its annual gasoline needs by growing the brown seaweed for harvest on less than one percent of its territorial waters.
 
The world already grows and harvests more 15 million metric tons of kombu and other seaweeds for direct human consumption. There seems no reason why large additional amounts of the seaweed could not be harvested for ethanol without driving up the costs of other foods. Corn ethanol competes directly for land with food and feed, thereby increasing food costs to consumers, especially for meat, milk, and eggs.
 
The seaweed catch? The new ethanol depends on genetically engineered bacteria. The process has been developed by BioArchitecture Lab., Inc. (BAL) and the University of Washington in Seattle. They modified the common E. coli bacterium to turn the sugars in edible kelp into ethanol. The research has just been reported in the January 20 issue of the journal Science. “The form of sugar inside the seaweed is very exotic,” says Yashuo Yoshikuni, one of the developers. “There is no industrial microbe to break down the alginate [in the seaweed] and convert it into fuels and chemical compounds.”
 
How badly does the environmental movement want to get rid of fossil fuels? Enough to accept the biotech ethanol solution? At this moment, the world’s acceptance of other renewable fuels is plummeting, due to their high costs compared to coal and natural gas. Meanwhile, the new horizontal drilling and fracking processes have suddenly made long-known and abundant shale petroleum reserves far more cost-effective. The claims that fracking will pollute drinking water are not holding up, since the petroleum-drilling is thousands of feet further down in the soil profile than the well-drilling.
 
The eco-movement has long demanded “natural” food production. Bio-tech food production has been successfully banned in many 3rd world countries because of the pressure from 1st world activists. But would that apply to kelp ethanol vats? The kelp for biofuel can be grown in Puget Sound, but kelp farms have been rejected by landowners and fishermen.
 
On the other hand, if kombu ethanol can be produced so readily, other nations have at least as much seawater in their surroundings as the “rich” in North America and Europe. Meaning all countries having access to seawater could make energy and support their own populations while expanding their economies into the 21st century.
 
Remember, of course, none of this will much reduce our dependency on oil. One percent of our territorial waters for one percent of our fuel means it will only be useful in fulfilling the congressional mandate and perhaps rescue us from corn ethanol.

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About the Author: Dennis Avery

Dennis Avery

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., is an environmental economist. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of "Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years." Readers may write to him at PO Box 202 Churchville, VA 24421; email to cgfi@mgwnet.com.