Biofuel hold promise for some, but is a bad word to others. While reducing dependency on fossil fuels, many are produced from food crops like corn or sugar, meaning food meant for hungry mouths is diverted to filling gas tanks. To heighten production, farmers begin mono-cropping, which degrades the soil. The amount of fresh water required, and the carbon emissions produced (in the case of palm oil), are enormous. These issues and others belong to a serious debate about whether making the switch to biofuels is sustainable. A new method of seaweed-based biofuel production, however, creates none of these issues. Global competition for resources will only increase as populations continue to grow and as climates continue to change. We are currently enduring the highest commodity prices in history and are running out of places to grow things. Producing biofuel from seaweed is the newest addition to the aquaculture trend and while governments around the globe are taking note, developing nations may have the most to gain.
Seaweed has been cultivated throughout the ages for a variety of uses, including food, cosmetics, plastics, animal feed, and vitamin supplements. Kelp is the main algae being cultivated in underwater forests to produce ethanol, which can be mixed with petrol or methane to produce natural gas. Twine is “impregnated” with millimetre-sized seaweed embryos, which is then wound around ropes and staked to the ocean floor. The seaweed is generally harvested by hand. Island states in the South Pacific are looking to use this biofuel as a means of increasing their self-sufficiency and self-sustainability, given that energy can be costly to import and difficult to obtain. They are using the seaweed to fuel anaerobic digesters, which are vessels wherein chemical or biological reactions are carried out. The digesters are used to cultivate methane, and they also produce a by-product that is ideal for fertilizer by fermenting the seaweed, which means that either developing countries won’t have to import or produce as much fertilizer for their land crops, or they can plant more. Antoine N’Yuert from the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji recognizes these benefits and is piloting the initiative in the region with a $10,000 grant from the US.
Farming kelp for biofuel has many positive implications for the environment, both locally and globally. Seaweed forests are capable of removing carbon from the atmosphere and they increase fish stocks by replacing bare ocean floor with seaweed forests. The forests also help to preserve coral reefs by increasing diversity where the algae has been introduced and provides a new niche for local fish. Fish farming, particularly shrimp farming, has been criticized for its impact on the environment. Seaweed is capable of reducing the pollution such farming creates. In Vietnam, shrimp farmers have introduced seaweed to their ponds. Seaweed removes fish excreta and it removes waste nitrogen from nutrients that are added to the water in fish food. Vietnamese farmers have reported cleaner water, and are producing their own biofuel in the process. In Israel, fish, oysters, and seaweed are grown together to maximize the use of nutrients in the water and cut down on pollution simultaneously.
The initiative has economic benefits as well. Seaweed grows faster, and produces energy five times more quickly than land plants. Given that it is already cultivated for a range of other commercial products, using the waste from the production of these products for biofuel would maximize profits from a single crop. Seaweed is still heavily labour-intensive and is harvested by hand so introducing the industry in impoverished areas would give populations a new means of livelihood and income. A new industry may be created as well for converting the by-products produced into fertilizer, thereby providing more jobs in the Global South.
N’Yuert is using a $200 digester that was designed for use by family. Typical digesters can range from $200 – $500,000 depending on their size, capacity, and purpose. N’Yeurt’s digester is providing enough biofuel for a small community to use. The bulk of the grant is being used for lab work, assessing ways to scale-up the operation. If the initiative were to be grandly scaled-up and adopted globally, regulations would need to be put in place to avoid oceanic clear-cutting of mangroves or reefs, which is what many small-scale farmers have doing. As with land cultivation, clear-cutting results in environmental degradation, whether on land or sea. Mangroves are necessary as they promote biodiversity. Cutting them down disrupts the ocean floor, could promote erosion, and depletes water quality. So, plots would also have to be carefully chosen and government involvement and oversight would be paramount.
At present, their involvement is crucial, according to Mark Capron, president of POD Energy, a company that uses algae as an energy source. Both Capron and Y’Nuert agree that involved governments must to support pilots and research before large companies come in and scale up operations before regulations and safeguards can be put in place.
Those seeking to ramp-up yields by mechanising production are considering using the base of offshore wind turbines as grow ops. Capron is investigating the possibility of placing balloon-like anaerobic digesters on the ocean floor, to use the natural pressure of the deep sea to speed up fermentation. While this may be advantageous for production, such foreign materials may cause fish and other species to avoid the area. If they were to malfunction, damage could be done to nearby anemone or other sea life. Current research indicates that small-scale operations would be the most sustainable and beneficial to countries in the Global South, particularly island nations, and they would have the least negative impact on the environment.