New Algae Research May Have Uncovered an “Energy Forest” Under the Sea
I’ve never subscribed to the idea that we need a silver bullet to replace crude oil.
I’ve always believed the better solution would be to develop a working balance among sustainable and exchangeable energy sources.
Today, we have contributions from renewables like solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, and even wave and kinetic power, to complement the energy we create from crude oil, natural gas, nuclear, and coal.
And there are “new” forms of energy being touted every day. Some of these new directions represent thinking that is quite “outside the box.”
In fact, several years ago I was actively involved in evaluating some of these new energy technologies. It involved field work, visiting laboratories, testing centers, and production facilities in a number of locations.
I found the novel ways of looking at problems and coming up with new solutions absolutely fascinating.
Yet, of all the “game changers” I was asked to review, one source was by far the most common. The phone calls became so frequent I referred to them under one phrase.
I would simply call them my “algae of the week.” And none of them ever amounted to much.
But an entirely new angle being developed in Sweden might just change all of that…
The Roadblock for Most Algae-Based Biofuels
Of course, the main problem with the initial categories of biofuels was that they involved growing matter that was also a food stock or fodder (itself resulting in the same thing). The corn-based ethanol popular in the U.S. is a variety of fuel that has this problem as well.
And then there was the additional shortcoming on the energy side of the equation. Bio-based fuels delivered much less bang for the buck when it came to replacing oil products like gasoline or diesel.
So eventually the attention shifted to biofuels that could be created using plants that aren’t food crops or take up land that could otherwise be used for farming.
It was in this mixture of non-food, wasteland, and organic residue that algae found its opening.
Now, the scientific approach to algae has been there for some time. There is no question that algae generates energy, significant amounts when compared to the actual mass of the organic base. And there has always been something rather attractive about heating homes or distilling fuel from pond scum.
But the difficulties of making this work economically were something else entirely. Most experiments with algae, even those that could be considered on an industrial scale, ended up with an unacceptable energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI.
Now it’s giving away my age to mention that when we first started using this as a barometer of energy efficiency it was referred to as the energy profit ratio, or EPR.
But whether you call it EROEI or EPR, its importance doesn’t change. The ratio measures how much energy has to be used to produce a given amount of energy on the user’s end. If the ratio is less than 1, more energy is invested than returned.
That could still make for a neat party trick, but would be useless in any situation other than a war or a national emergency.
Ultimately, that is the roadblock that most algae experiments hit – it simply took too much energy to produce algae-based energy. This resulted either from the infrastructure and processing required to produce the algae in large enough quantities, or the even more vexing problem of “breaking” the algae membranes to release the energy being generated.
However, a new possibility has emerged that may actually hold some real promise.
An “Energy Forest” Under the Sea
As the Climate News Network reported late last month, this algae-based model involves using seaweed.
Seaweed has been used for fertilizer, and even is part of ingested diets in various parts of the world. But now there’s an energy connection emerging from an approach being pioneered in Sweden with a particular species.
It’s called “sugar kelp” (Laminaria saccharina) and it grows prolifically along the Baltic Sea coastlines of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. It contains over three times the energy of sugar beets, and has promising prospects for both energy and food.
The point guy here is Frederik Gröndahl, a Swedish KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher and head of the Seafarm project. The overarching goal of this project is to develop a sustainable system for the use of seaweeds as a renewable resource in a future, bio-based Swedish society.
According to Gröndahl, the coasts of Sweden are perfect for the cultivation of large algae (macroalgae), since there are plentiful archipelagos and well-sheltered areas. The only thing required is sunlight, which allows the algae to grow by a couple of meters per season. The first algae farm is already up and running, near the Swedish town of Strömstad, in the waters that separate the country from Denmark.
And the initial results are intriguing.
“The fact is that algae can absorb nitrogen from the water as effectively as a wastewater treatment plant,” Gröndahl says.
The seaweed is being scooped up in order to be converted into biogas. The city of Trelleborg estimates that its beaches contain an excess of algae that is equivalent to the energy from 2.8 million liters of diesel fuel.
“It will be an energy forest at sea,” according to Gröndahl. “My vision is that in 15 years’ time, we will have many large algae cultivations along our coasts; and Seafarm will have contributed to the creation of a new industry from which people can make a living.”
Of course, a great deal needs to be done before an actual biofuel revolution is underway in the seaweed off the Baltic coast.
Nonetheless, it has already spawned its first media tag…
“Seaweed offers kelping hand for biofuels,” a local Swedish newspaper headline read last week.