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Along the craggy coastlines of Iceland, Northern Brittany and Ireland seaweed – or ‘dulse’ as it sometimes called – has long been considered a tasty delicacy. Despite only being recognised for it’s nutritious qualities in East Asia and the fringes of Western civilisation, seaweed holds a lucrative promise for a far-hungrier and iconic Western demagogue; the car.

Scientists recently discovered that large amounts of ethanol or ‘oilgae‘ can be extracted from seaweed and its single-celled cousin, algae. This discovery may hold the key to unlocking biofuels from their current ethical and economic dilemma.

Kelp bed by Derek Keats

Early car designers such as Nicholas Otto and Henry Ford, as well as fellow inventors Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were advocates of biofuels, recognising their clean burning and sustainable qualities. However cheap oil supplies, a hungry, rising population, and legal obstacles such as the US Prohibition and alcohol taxes effectively nipped the fledgling biofuel industry in the bud.

With those oil supplies now dwindling, and rising concerns over petroleum pollution, alternatives are now being actively sought. Electric cars look promising, but require customers to buy new and currently expensive cars – a solution which is beyond the bank balances of the average citizen, particularly those in the fast-growing developing world. Electric cars would also require new infrastructure, and their mass production could deplete resources even faster.

To run a car off biofuels however, could require as little as tweaking the combustion engine – something which Brazilians know well through their government’s highly successfully sugar cane biofuels program.

Recently, the US and the EU set targets to increase their uptake of biofuels. This move however, has already been linked to species loss, deforestation and, according to the World Bank, an estimated 75% rise in world food prices as edible crops were redirected into car tanks. It’s not even particularly efficient, with each car effectively needing on average several hectares-worth of biofuels to fully run it each year. This has caused widespread condemnation of biofuel programs as both unethical and economically infeasible.

While the squabbling over land continues, the elephant in the room is that over 50% of the world’s growing potential currently lies untapped in our oceans. Some estimates by the United States Department of Energy suggest that aquatic biofuels could yield up to 30 times more ethanol than land-based biofuels.

A group of researchers from Tokyo University believes that a 10,000km2 seaweed farm in the shallow waters of Yamatotai could provide enough ethanol to satisfy 1/3 of Japan’s entire fuel needs. Meanwhile, the United States Department of Energy has calculated that if algae biofuels were grown in self-contained ponds or ‘phytoreactor tanks’, only 25,000km2 of them would be needed to provide energy for the whole country.

To put this in perspective, this is less than a quarter of the land currently given over to corn biofuels production in the US, and the algae tanks could even be constructed in arid deserts as they don’t require arable land, but just lots of sunlight. Ironically, algae also requires comparatively little water compared to conventional biofuels, and it has also been suggested that the rapidly-photosynthesising algae tanks could absorb waste water nutrients as well as exhaust CO2 from power plants.

Along with providing biofuels, seaweed farming could help clean the oceans, provide a new resource of chemicals and organic fertilisers, as well as plentiful varieties of food for humans and animals alike. As such, large-scale seaweed and algae farming would go a long way towards easing deforestation and the rapidly declining fish stocks, while potentially reviving traditional fishing communities.

By virtue of being an island nation the UK has a huge potential for seaweed farming. In fact, the 2008 President’s Medal for Architecture went to a Strathclyde student who envisioned a Scottish seaweed farm. Ireland, the UK and the EU have also just invested $8 million into the Scottish BioMara project, which aims to research techniques to bring down the cost of marine biofuels and investigate the potential for home-grown marine biofuels.

The race is on worldwide to tap into this lucrative resource, with hopes of commercial ‘oilgae’ production beginning in 2020 – a full century after Henry Ford first manufactured his biofuel-ready Model T.

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