A team of scientists from Bio Architecture Lab (BAL), a private company based in Berkley, Calif., says they have developed breakthrough technology that helps to further enable the wide-scale use of seaweed (macroalgae) as a feedstock for advanced biofuels and renewable chemical production.

The team engineered a microbe to extract the sugars in seaweed and convert them into renewable fuels and chemicals, thus making seaweed a real renewable biomass contender.

“About 60 percent of the dry biomass of seaweed are sugars, and more than half of those are locked in a single sugar — alginate,” said Daniel Trunfio, Chief Executive Officer at Bio Architecture Lab, in a prepared statement. “Our scientists have developed a pathway to metabolize the alginate, allowing us to unlock all the sugars in seaweed, which therefore makes macroalgae an economical alternative feedstock for the production of renewable fuels and chemicals.”

Scientists say seaweed can be an ideal global feedstock for the commercial production of biofuels and renewable chemicals because in addition to its high sugar content it has no lignin, and it does not require arable land or freshwater to grow. Globally, if 3 percent of the coastal waters were used to produce seaweed, then more than 60 billion gallons of fossil fuel could be produced, BAL says. Today, in many parts of the world, seaweed is already grown at commercial scale. BAL currently operates four seaweed farms in Chile and reports success in growing seaweed at economically viable production yields.

BAL was a beneficiary of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) awarded to DuPont, for the development of a process to convert sugars from seaweed into isobutanol.

“BAL”s technology to ferment a seaweed feedstock to renewable fuels and chemicals has created an entirely new pathway for biofuels development, one that is no longer constrained to terrestrial sources,” said ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Jonathan Burbaum, in a prepared statement. “When fully developed and deployed, large-scale seaweed cultivation combined with BAL’s technology promises to produce renewable fuels and chemicals without forcing a tradeoff with conventional food crops such as corn or sugarcane.”

In addition to work for DuPont, the development of BAL’s technology is also supported by the Concurso Nacional Grant provided by InnovaChile CORFO and Statoil, the Norwegian oil giant and offshore oil and gas producer.

BAL’s research is detailed in an article entitled “An Engineered Microbial Platform for Direct Biofuel Production from Brown Macroalgae,” which appears on the cover of the January 20 issue of Science magazine. The paper is available here: http://www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1214547.