Unlocking Seaweed’s Next-Gen Crude: Sugar

Source: JOSIE GARTHWAITE • New York Times  • Posted: Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A trawler in Chile hauling seaweed whose sugars will be converted into ethanol.

Bio Architecture LabA trawler in Chile hauling seaweed whose sugars will be converted into ethanol.

Seaweed often brings to mind thoughts of surf and sushi, not fuel. But that could change if a biotechnology startup called Bio Architecture Lab succeeds in building a new kind of energy company from designer bacteria and a low-cost process for harvesting seaweed.

The key is a genetically modified strain of Escherichia coli bacterium, which can break down the sugars in brown seaweed, or macro-algae, to produce ethanol, according to new research published in the peer-reviewed journal Science. As one of the 14 study authors, BAL’s co-founder and chief science officer, Yasuo Yoshikuni, explained in a telephone interview, “Sugar is the next-generation crude oil — it can go to fuels and chemicals.” BAL’s breakthrough, he says, is about finding a way to “unlock the sugars in seaweed.”

Fast-growing, sugar-rich seaweed has much to offer as a biomass feedstock. Unlike corn and sugar cane, it does not compete with food crops for land, and it does not require freshwater. What is more, seaweed does not contain lignin, a compound found in the cell walls of some plants like corn that enables them to stand up and is difficult to break down. Environmentally, Mr. Yoshikuni said, seaweed can help to clean up water by absorbing pollution and waste from agricultural fertilizers, municipal solid waste, and seafood production.

However, seaweed presents challenges, too. Industrially available microbes cannot metabolize a sugar called alginate, which makes up half of the sugar content in seaweed. “A couple microbes found in the ocean can metabolize alginate,” Mr. Yoshikuni said. So his team introduced genes from a marine microbe to a widely used microbe, E. coli. They also introduced an “ethanol producing component,” or pathway. The microbe could easily be engineered with a pathway for producing, say, jet fuel or butanol, Mr. Yoshikuni said.

The research published in Science shows Mr. Yoshikuni and his colleagues achieved as much as 80 percent of the maximum theoretical yield from the sugar composition in seaweed.

It’s one thing to demonstrate the technology, and quite another to implement it at a scale that takes a bite out of the current market for petroleum-based fuels and chemicals. Yet according to BAL’s chief executive, Dan Trunfio, “We’re not trying to create an industrial miracle. Seaweed has been grown at commercial scale for 100 years.” You can find seaweed aquafarms in China just as cornfields are found in the United States, he said in a telephone interview.

Farmed at 18 to 22 dry tons per acre, Mr. Trunfio said, seaweed can yield 1,500 gallons of ethanol per acre. That’s 50 percent more ethanol per acre than sugar cane and triple the ethanol per acre of corn, at a fraction of the cost.

Founded in 2008, BAL is based amid a small cluster of biotech startups adjacent to the bayside Aquatic Park in Berkeley, Calif. But its ambitions extend far beyond the West Coast. BAL has four aquafarming operations throughout Chile, and offices in Puerto Montt, a hub in the Los Lagos region for the nation’s salmon industry.

It is in Los Lagos where BAL is now setting up a pilot facility to demonstrate its process from start to finish, from the farming and harvesting of native Macrocystis pyrifera seaweed, to crushing the feedstock to fermenting its carbohydrates to produce fuel or chemically synthesizing them to produce chemicals. Along with its subsidiaries BALChile and BALBiofuels Chile, BAL broke ground on the project in mid-December and plans to begin operations this year.

Mr. Trunfio said that Chile is a hospitable place for a company at this stage of developing biofuel from seaweed. “Chile has a vast aquaculture industry, and seaweed is included in that,” he said. It also helps that the Chilean government is “very supportive of renewable fuels and energy,” he added. In partnership with the Universidad de Los Lagos, BAL has received a $7.5 million grant from Chile’s economic development agency, Innova CORFO, to set up research and biofuel production in Chile.

BAL’s backers span three continents. In addition to its work in Chile, BAL has formed a strategic partnership with Statoil, a Norwegian producer of offshore oil and gas. Under the partnership, Statoil agreed to finance development and demonstration of technology for converting coastal Norwegian seaweed to ethanol.

In the United States, BAL has received funding as a subcontractor for DuPont under an $8.8 million grant from the Energy Department’s ARPA-E program for work producing isobutanol from seaweed. And according to Mr. Trunfio, the company is now “getting ready” to begin aquafarming on the East Coast with a new partner.

In total, BAL has raised $37.5 million, including $12 million in venture capital. More financing will be needed to bring BAL’s biochemicals and ethanol to market, Mr. Trunfio said. But if all goes well, he says, the company could be selling renewable chemicals by 2014 and fuel within five years.