The development of alternative energy sources - in particular, improvements or replacements to fossil fuel-based gasoline - has been slow, to say the least. Ethanol additives are controversial as they are not necessarily cost effective. The price of processing corn into ethanol can exceed what would be a reasonable price at the pump and what it provides in emission reductions is overshadowed by the emissions generated as part of the production process. However, there are alternatives.
Researchers have been looking into the benefits of using other organic materials that contain similar sugars which can be used to produce ethanol or suitable derivatives. Sugarcane and switchgrass are two and besides being more economical to produce, they also do not divert an important food crop like corn towards energy production. Add to the list another promising candidate: seaweed.
Several nations, including the U.S., are looking at producing ethanol derivatives using seaweed. There are strains of brown seaweed, an inedible variety, that can be used to provide similar organic sugars necessary to produce isobutanol, a gasoline additive that is more effective than ethanol in reducing fossil-fuel emissions. Whereas corn and sugarcane provide sugar through the use of lignin, one of the plants building blocks; seaweed offers a similar-acting compound called alginate.
The statistics are in seaweed's favor. It can assist in the production of 1,200 to 1,500 gallons of ethanol per acre, as opposed to 900 to 1,000 gallons per acre for sugarcane, and does not require fertilizer, fresh water, or land. However, it does have its challenges. A substantial aquaculture industry would need to be developed to generate enough product to make it worthwhile and that means seaweed farms that could impinge on other commercial and even recreational ocean activities, ranging from commercial fishing to aquaculture for food to offshore energy systems like wind turbines. Energy company Royal Dutch Shell has estimated that it would require 3 percent of the world's coasts where kelp ( a type of brown algae) grows to make enough ethanol to replace 60 billion gallons of fossil fuel, which would amount to about 4 percent of global transportation fuel demand.
"I think it's definitely worth looking at," said Jonathan Burbaum, director of biofuels for the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). "There's nothing at this point that's a showstopper. We've got a situation where it would require the development of an offshore aquaculture industry for there to be enough feedstock to really compete with things like corn and cellulose. But it's the sort of thing, where if it's successful, it will be a game changer, so that fits what ARPA-E looks for."
So, a silver bullet it isn't. And that's one of the most challenging aspects regarding the entire alternative energy debate: one alternative will not entirely replace the fossil fuel (oil and coal) that society has come to depend on. In the end, if we are to succeed, it will be through a combination of technologies that collectively replace or, at least, drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
"It's [Seaweed is] no more far-fetched than the notion of using algae or any other material," said Matt Hartwig of the U.S. ethanol trade group Renewable Fuels Association. "The biofuels industry is in a constant state of innovation."
Currently, the U.S., Chile and Norway are actively researching seaweed's potential as an alternative energy source. Let's hope their work produces commercially viable results; I'm not sure just how long Earth can hold its breath in anticipation.
Source: Kansas City Star