When I tune into the evening news and listen to all the craziness that is going on in the world, it’s hard to see how humankind is anything but doomed to self-destruction. To counterpoint this line of thinking and help maintain a certain level of sanity, I try my best to seize upon stories that give me a sense of hope (when they present themselves).
The Jan. 20 issue of Science* magazine offered such an opportunity. In this edition of Science there is an article about a team of scientists who have developed a technology that professes to enable the wide-scale use of seaweed (macroalgae) as a feedstock for advanced biofuels and renewable chemical production.
Clearly, renewables have met some roadblocks along the way, but the scientists featured in this story seem to have learned valuable lessons from previous missteps on the renewable path. For example, the scientists, who work for Bio Architecture Lab (BAL, ba-lab.com), a private company based in Berkley, Calif., say seaweed is 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 doesn’t require arable land or freshwater to grow. Globally, if 3 percent of the coastal waters were used to produce seaweed, BAL estimates more than 60 billion gallons of fossil fuel could be generated.
“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 Jonathan Burbaum, program director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s, Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E, http://arpa-e.energy.gov/), which is a funder of BAL’s seaweed-based renewables R&D. “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,” he says.
The thing about this story that makes me hopeful is not the specifics of the technology itself, but rather the diligence it exemplifies. While many early renewable initiatives have faltered along the way, scientists and engineers continue to strive toward the end goal of developing cost-effective and environmentally friendly energy and chemical sources, which leads me to believe that while the path to renawables may not be as smooth as we might like, the end goal will, at some point, be achieved.
Another thing that makes me hopeful is that some of the funding for this project comes from Statoil, the Norwegian oil and gas giant. I wrote an editorial on this page years ago that urged companies typically characterized as “oil & gas” to start viewing themselves more broadly as “energy,” as they are best positioned to drive us toward and capitalize on renewables. And while this trend has been slow to come, in large part because such companies are tied to the huge profits they’ve been generating for so long on the back of oil & gas, I think it’s a good sign to see the oil & gas companies getting more and more involved in renewable initiatives (i.e., assuming their interest is in evolution rather than containment).
Whatever your position in the energy debate, the idea that we can devise a way to meet the world’s power requirements through renewable sources like seaweed is, in my mind, amazing. And as our supplies of traditional energy sources continue to dwindle and draw us into more remote and potentially precarious exploration scenarios, the concept of renewables becomes more logical. So as I face the never-ending barrage of seemingly hopeless news, I try to keep in mind just how adaptive human beings can be and all of the great things we’re capable of accomplishing if and when we set our minds to it.
– Matt Migliore, Executive Director of Content
* “An Engineered Microbial Platform for Direct Biofuel Production from Brown Macroalgae,” Jan. 20, Science.