Scientists aim at seaweed-powered cars

A group of scientists has gone offshore in an effort to bypass the food-versus-fuel debate.

Startup Bio Architecture Lab today published a paper in Science it claims will turn seaweed into a viable feedstock for fuel and other chemicals.

Making fuel and chemicals from crops such as corn and sugar cane requires significant quantities of land and fresh water, creating competition for resources with agriculture. Macroalgae such as seaweed, by contrast, grow in salt water and are relatively productive energy sources because they are 60 percent carbohydrates and don't contain lignin, which binds up useful molecules in many earthbound plants.

In their paper, scientists at Bio Architecture Lab say they have isolated an enzyme they could use to rapidly convert seaweed into its constituent sugars. Technically, they inserted genes into E. coli bacteria that can process molecules found in the cell walls of seaweed into sugars--and then ferment those sugars into ethanol or other commodity chemicals.

"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 Bio Architecture Lab CEO Daniel Trunfio in a statement. "Our scientists have developed a pathway to metabolize the alginate, allowing us to unlock all the sugars in seaweed."

The company's hope is to design a process that will take farmed seaweed and convert it directly into a fuel, rather than the traditional multi-step biofuel production method.

It's now operating four seaweed farms off the coast of Chile and doing work for partner DuPont. Bio Architecure Lab estimates that dedicating three percent of shore line to aquafarming seaweed would yield 60 billion gallons of fuels a year.


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