Scotland Looks at Seaweed for Biofuel

Don’t try stuffing seaweed into your car just yet, but a new project in Europe just received £5 million ($7.5 million) to help turn marine plants into biofuel. The BioMara project will be led by scientists at the Scottish Association for Marine Science and include researchers from Ireland and Northern Ireland to look at producing biofuel from marine biomass as an alternative to production from land-based plants.

Seaweed is a type of algae, and a significant amount of funding has already gone into developing biofuel from algae, with San Diego’s HR BioPetroleum making a deal earlier this year to build a commercial-scale plant in Hawaii. Other algae-to-biofuel startups include Massachusetts-based GreenFuel Technologies, San Francisco’s Solazyme, and New Zealand’s Aquaflow Bionomic.

Funding for the four-year BioMara project comes from the EU, Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise agency, and the UK’s Crown Estate. The Scottish scientists will work on the cross-border project in partnership with the Institutes of Technology in Dundalk and Sligo in Ireland, and Queens University Belfast and the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. About 65 percent of the cash will go to the Scottish Association of Marine Science, with the remainder split among the other partners.

While any kind of volume production is likely years away, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said in a statement that the project has the potential to create hundreds of jobs in remote coastal areas and islands in the region. He said the development of seaweed-based biofuels could provide locally produced, relatively cheap, low-impact fuel.

In areas such as Europe, where land for growing biofuel crops is limited, the marine plant could become an attractive option for a biofuel feedstock. Seaweed could also be used for more than just for biofuel. A recently released UK report on marine biomass noted that biogas made from seaweed could be burned to produce heat or generate electricity. The report said the biomass could also be anaerobically digested to produce methane which, in turn, could be used to generate electricity.

Work on the BioMara project is expected to get underway early next year.