Until now, seaweed has been valued mainly as food, but also as fertiliser, animal feed, and recently for a growing phycocolloid industry producing algin, agar and carrageenan. But it could also be a major fuel.
Macro-algae (seaweeds) are cultivated at sea, mainly by simply tying them to anchored floating lines. Seaweeds do not require soil, and are already provided with all the water they need, a major advantage over land production of biofuels since water is the most limiting factor for most agricultural expansion, especially with climate change.
We have calculated that less than three per cent of the world’s oceans — that’s about 20 per cent of the land area currently used in agriculture — would be needed to fully substitute for fossil fuels.
In March, 2007, Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, the Mitsubishi Research Institute, and several companies announced a project to develop bioethanol from seaweed. The plan is to cultivate Sargasso seaweed in an area covering 3,860 square miles in the Sea of Japan. This will be harvested and dissolved into ethanol aboard ships, which will carry the biofuel to a tanker. The process is expected to yield 5 billion gallons of bioethanol in 3-5 years. [equal to about 326,000 barrels of oil per day or one percent of OPEC oil production]
The Japanese seaweed fuel project would put Japan in the range of Brazils biofuel output levels. Brazil and the United States are the current world leaders in biofuel production (Brazil uses sugarcane and the US mostly uses corn and soybeans) The USA and Brazil produce about 70% of the worlds biofuel.
Indonesia harvested 1,079,850 tons of seaweed in 2006 but is expected to reach 1.9 million tons in 2009. In September, South Korea’s government signed a deal to lease 25,000 hectares (61,750 acres or about 90 square miles) of Indonesian coastal waters to grow seaweed for bioethanol fuel.
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