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Ocean Energy from Macroalgae

Fearless Fund

Ocean Energy from Macroalgae (OEM): Ranching Sargassum

Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$496,483
Location: 
Washington, DC
Project Term: 
07/02/2018 to 07/15/2019
Project Status: 
ACTIVE
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 

Marine macroalgae, also referred to as seaweeds or kelp, are a group of exceptionally diverse aquatic plants. Macroalgae can be found along nearly all coastlines around the globe and in some cases also in the open ocean. They have traditionally been used for food and feed, as well as fertilizer. In 2016, the world produced approximately 26 million wet metric tons of seaweed, primarily through highly labor-intensive farming techniques. While macroalgae production has increased six-fold over the past quarter-century, the current state of macroalgae "mariculture" is not capable of achieving the scale, efficiency and production costs necessary to support a seaweed-to-fuels industry. Dramatically increasing productivity will require significant advancements in the domestication of macroalgae and new farming technologies. To accelerate the development of critical tools and technologies, the MARINER program is supporting projects in five areas: 1) Integrated Cultivation & Harvest System Design, 2) Critical Enabling Components, 3) Computational Modeling, 4) Monitoring Tools, and 5) Breeding & Genomic Tools.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

Fearless Fund will lead a MARINER Category 1 project to design and develop a new system to enable large-scale macroalgae "ranching" using remote sensing, imaging, and modeling technologies. The core concept targets monitoring free-floating, low-impact Sargassum seaweed in the Gulf of Mexico for cost-effective biomass harvest. Fearless Fund's cultivation process is designed to mimic naturally occurring seaweed mats found at the surface of the ocean. The concept leverages the free-floating nature of Sargassum, reducing costs from labor, seeding, and harvesting normally associated with seaweed farming. Fearless Fund will investigate the potential to artificially "seed" circular currents found in the Gulf of Mexico with Sargassum cuttings. The team envisions that Sargassum could be ranched within Gulf currents, where it can grow to maturity at a predicted rate. The circular current transports the crop closer to shore at the projected time of harvest, which is calculated based on historical data. Remote sensing technologies will be used to monitor the crop over a three month cultivation season before harvesting the new crop with barges and tug boats after the uninterrupted initial growing period. By improving these methods and leveraging the wealth of data generated from a suite of sensors, the team hopes that industrial-scale farming of macroalgae can be achieved without capital-intensive infrastructure.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, MARINER projects strive to develop the tools needed to allow the United States to become a world leader in marine biomass production for multiple important applications, including the production of biofuels.

Security: 

Production of biofuels from domestically produced marine biomass could lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, bolstering energy security.

Environment: 

Growing large amounts of macroalgae would not compete with land-based food crops, requires no fresh water and can be grown without the addition of energy-intensive, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Large-scale macroalgae cultivation may help reduce the negative effects of nutrient overload and ocean acidification in many coastal ocean regions.

Economy: 

A domestic macroalgae industry would not only create a valuable new source of domestic energy, but also create significant new economic and employment opportunities in many waterfront communities along the U.S. coasts from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and the Pacific Islands.

Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Marc von Keitz
Project Contact: 
Alyson Myers
Release Date: 
9/19/2017