Kelp Farming, Whether For Food Or Fuel, Is In Our Future

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Kelp plants grow on a 30-foot-long, white PVC pole suspended in the water. If this is successful, instead of just one row, there would be a whole platform, hundreds of meters across and hundreds of meters deep, full of kelp plants. Courtesy of David Ginsburg/Wrigley Institute

Farming seaweed, using the power of the sun and the vast resources of the oceans, is a topic we expect to be featuring more of in these pages, and whether considering it as food or fuel we know the folks at the salt will be one of our primary sources delivering the goods:

The push for renewable energy in the U.S. often focuses on well-established sources of electricity: solar, wind and hydropower. Off the coast of California, a team of researchers is working on what they hope will become an energy source of the future — macroalgae, otherwise known as kelp.

The Pacific Coast is known for its vast kelp forests. It’s one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, and farming it requires no fertilizer, fresh water, pesticides, or arable land. “It can grow 2 to 3 feet per day,” says Diane Kim, one of the scientists running the kelp research project at the University of Southern California.

Kelp is transformed into biofuel by a process called thermochemical liquefaction. The kelp is dried out, and the salt is washed away. Then it’s turned into bio-oil through a high-temperature, high-pressure conversion process.

Some small companies are growing kelp as a substitute for kale in the U.S., but that’s exactly the problem – very, very few are doing it. Thus, the infrastructure and investment isn’t in place to make other products from kelp, like biofuel.

“We’re testing out a concept that would enable large-scale, open-ocean farming,” she says. “And what that would essentially do is grow enough kelp to make it economically feasible to make it cost competitive and maybe one day, provide a source of clean, sustainable, non-polluting source of energy to compete with fossil fuels.”

Twenty-five miles from downtown Los Angeles, on sunny Catalina Island, Kim and her colleagues operate a center called the Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies. The clean, deep waters off the island provide a great environment for research…

Read the whole story here.

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