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Is seaweed the future of alternative energy sources like biofuel?

Friday, March 16, 2012 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: seaweed, alternative energy, biofuel

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(NaturalNews) In the age of ever-spiraling gasoline prices and with green technology still in its infancy, a number of scientists are actively searching for clean, renewable sources of energy alternatives to fossil fuel.

Much of the push to create renewable fuel sources has gone toward the production of bioethanol, http://www.naturalnews.com that is driving up the cost of feeding the world. But now, Israeli researchers have begun turning to the sea for answers, specifically, using common seaweed as a primary source of bioethanol production.

Unlike corn and other land-grown commodities, harvesting seaweed doesn't damage ecosystems and does not tie up valuable acres of land. Furthermore, say researchers, seaweed can be grown more quickly than land-based crops, and can be grown unobtrusively along out-of-the-way coastlines where it can be accessed and harvested easily. In addition, notes Prof. Avigdor Abelson of Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology and the new Renewable Energy Center, seaweed is capable of clearing the waters of excess damaging nutrients caused by human waste or aquaculture, both of which disturb marine life.

Eliminating harmful production

Abelson and his team of researchers making bioethanol from seaweed is far less harsh on the environment, and actually could prove to be beneficial not only to the environment but to sea life.

"While biomasses grown on land have the potential to inflict damage on the environment, the researchers believe that producing biofuel from seaweed-based sources could even solve problems that already exist within the marine environment," says a Tel Aviv University report on the concept.

"Many coastal regions, including the Red Sea in the south of Israel, have suffered from eutrophication -- pollution caused by human waste and fish farming, which leads to excessive amounts of nutrients and detrimental algae, ultimately harming endangered coral reefs," the report said. "Encouraging the growth of seaweed for eventual conversion into biofuel could solve these environmental problems."

Currently, Abelson's research team is working to increase carbohydrate and sugar contents of seaweed beds, in order to boost the fermentation process which will increase bioethanol production.

Body of work

The concept of turning seaweed into bioethanol has been examined for several years now. In 2009, research by the Scottish Association for Marine Science, in a study commissioned by The Crown Estate, which manages land holdings for the British crown, found that seaweed could be a valuable source of biofuels that does not compete with food for land or require fresh water to grow.

"Given Scotland's rugged western coastline and island groups, and relatively clean seas, it is sensible to examine the farming of seaweeds and sustainable harvesting of natural supplies as a source of energy, to heat our homes and fuel our vehicles," said Mike Cowling, science and research manager for The Crown Estate.

Research breakthrough

Scientists have said that, up to now, the problem with utilizing seaweed as a major biofuel alternative "has been that standard microbes cannot readily metabolize its primary sugar constituent, known as alginate," says a January report in Discovery News. "Two other sugars found in seaweed ferment readily, but without conversion of the alginate, biofuel production from seaweed is simply too inefficient, and thus too expensive, to ever compete seriously with petroleum-based fuels."

But scientists working on the problem may have found a breakthrough. Adam Wargacki of Bio Architecture Lab in Berkeley, Calif., and his colleagues have managed to make seaweed more palatable. They have managed to engineer "a new form of E. coli bacteria that can digest all the sugars found in brown seaweed, including alginate," said the report.

In doing so, the team was able to achieve 80 percent of seaweed's theoretical ethanol yield, "which is double that of sugar cane and five times that of corn."

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