Biofuels: seaweed in your tank?

Workers harvest seaweed at a coastal farm for Berkley, California-based Bio Architecture Lab. The company has engineered a microbe to derive sugars from seaweed to make fuel and chemicals. | Bio Architecture Lab Inc./MCT

Scientists from Bio Architecture Lab in Berkeley, California have just announced that they have created a microbe that can convert the sugars in brown, inedible seaweed into energy far more efficiently than biofuels made from land-based crops like corn and sugar cane.

The company says seaweed’s advantages as a feedstock make it attractive: It needs no fertilizer, land or fresh water, and it can be used to make 1,200 to 1,500 gallons of ethanol per acre, compared with 450 gallons per acre of corn and 900 to 1,000 gallons per acre of sugarcane.

The company estimates that 3% of the world’s coasts where kelp grows would be sufficient to make enough ethanol to replace 60 billion barrels of fossil fuel, which is about 4% of global demand. It remains to be seen where that 3% of coastline will be located and exactly what impact farming the kelp beds will have on the ecosystem.