Exploiting the UK Seabed for a Commercially Viable Seaweed-to-Biofuels Industry

An innovative project, The ‘SeaGas’ scheme, is underway in the north east of England aimed at creating biomethane from seaweed. The conversion of seaweed to biogas via anaerobic digestion could enable the UK’s seabed to become a long-term source of environmentally friendly fuel. The ‘SeaGas’ scheme is being supported to the tune of nearly £3 million by the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst, which helps UK companies to bring their biotechnology innovations to market.

Seaweed versus conventional biofuels

Although conventional biofuels are widely recognised as greener alternatives to oil, controversy continues to surround those produced from food crops which could otherwise feed humans. Their production also uses up valuable freshwater, while the clearance of forest land – in particular to grow oil palms – can actually lead to higher carbon emissions than diesel production. These concerns do not apply to seaweed cultivation, which already has a long history in Asia thanks in part to seaweed’s use for high-value products such as vitamin supplements, cosmetics and plastics.

Collecting wild seaweed for culinary purposes is common practice across northern Europe, but harvesting it on the huge scale necessary for fuel would pose virtually unsurmountable conservation challenges (seaweed forests host a wide variety of fish and birds). This is why cultivated seaweed, which is less labour-intensive, is the likely way ahead.

Thermal treatment and alcoholic fermentation are among the processes by which seaweed can be converted to biofuels, but the composition of the algae makes it especially suited to anaerobic digestion (the process by which organic matter is broken down in an oxygen-free environment) which turns it into ethanol and methane. Until specialised production plants are developed, existing anaerobic digestion facilities can be used.

A local fuel source

Seaweed offers the potential to provide regions such as the west coast of Scotland, which lacks a domestic gas supply, with energy for local communities to use. There would also be gains in terms of local employment.

A number of pilot plants are in place along Europe’s Atlantic coast, while the USA and Chile are among non-European countries whose governments are investing in seaweed projects.

The SeaGas scheme is being overseen by the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), which is working with partners including Newcastle University and The Crown Estate. The consortium’s chief aims are to develop a supply chain, come up with a way of storing seaweed to cover shortages and promote the algae as a resource for other industry users.

Meeting future energy needs

The cost of producing fuels from seaweed will eventually come down as the industry expands. Assuming that fossil fuel prices, despite the recent oil price slump, will only go up, investing now in the technology that boosts the quantities of biofuel obtainable from seaweed could help Europe to meet its future energy needs and greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

From seaweed to North Sea oil, Exi Flow will continue to offer operators its indispensable gas flow measurement services. To find out more about these services call us today on 01243 554920.