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New England Researchers Race To Turn Seaweed Into Biofuel

Charlotte Weber
UConn Professor Charles Yarish poses with two jugs of seaweed at the Marine Biotechnology Lab at the UConn-Stamford campus. Yarish is at the forefront of seaweed R&D, helping to develop new technologies to convert the algae into fuel.

For the last 10 years, scientists all over the world have been racing to figure out how to convert massive quantities of seaweed into biofuel. UConn Professor Charles Yarish is one of them. He’s spent his career studying seaweed, and he just got news that the federal government is going to fund one of his dream projects.

The grant from the Department of Energy is $5.7 million, and will go to Yarish and colleagues at the University of Connecticut and a team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Their goal is to figure out if it would be viable to mass produce seaweed for use as biofuel in the federal waters 12 to 200 miles off the New England coast. That area has been designated by the U.N. as an exclusive economic zone.

Credit National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The map shows the exclusive economic zones of the U.S., areas where the country has jurisdiction over natural resources. Yarish's project would be located in the Northeast Region.

“We haven't been able to exploit this zone for areas of farming, and just imagine if you can grow seaweeds like kelp...this can propel a major industry in the U.S. for this type of aquaculture.”

Yarish and his team have been collecting samples of kelp, a type of brown seaweed. And they’re growing them in their lab at the UConn-Stamford campus. Yarish keeps the seaweed in a refrigerated chamber that’s like an industrial walk-in fridge.

Credit Charlotte Weber / WSHU
Professor Yarish shows the fuzzy kelp balls growing in a flask at the lab.

“...and right over here. These little fuzzy balls that you see? These are the juvenile kelp. We’ve got kelp from up and down the East Coast...Long Island Sound up to coastal Maine.”

To get from little, fuzzy, refrigerated kelp balls to mass production, they first need to develop the technology to be able to create a lot of kelp seed. 

“We then have to develop the type of kelp that can withstand the rigors of the North Atlantic Ocean during the winter months.”

Then they’ll work to figure out the most efficient way to cultivate the kelp. After they’ve done that, Yarish says they will be able to produce massive quantities of seaweed for biofuel “in a way that would cost less than $80 a ton.”

That’s cheaper than corn, wheat or rice.

And Yarish says mass producing seaweed comes with some extra benefits, too, like improving animal feed. “Today we now know that if you give animals, like cows and sheep, some seaweed in their diet that can actually cut down in their methane gas production.”

Yarish says all that seaweed in open waters could also be good for the environment, helping to balance the level of nutrients and oxygen in the water.

Yarish’s project is one of 18 being funded by the Department of Energy to realize the potential of seaweed as biofuel.

Marc von Keitz oversees the projects for the Department’s MARINER program. That stands for Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources.

“Dr. Yarish has been kind of the father of macroalgae in the U.S… His laboratory has established a lot of methodologies already that are crucial in this project.”

Von Keitz says that in four years all of the MARINER projects will be completed, including one in Maine, and another in Massachusetts, aimed at increasing the efficiency of seaweed farming. By that point he hopes seaweed can become big business in the U.S.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.