Biofuel Production from Kelp

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La Canada, California
Project Term:
06/06/2016 - 05/31/2023

Technology Description:

The team led by Marine BioEnergy will develop an open ocean cultivation system for macroalgae biomass, which can be converted to biocrude. Giant kelp is one of the fastest growing sources of biomass, and the open ocean surface water is an immense, untapped region for growing kelp. However, kelp does not grow in the open ocean because it needs to attach to a hard surface, typically less than 40 meters deep. Kelp also needs nutrients that are only available in deep water or near shore but not on the surface of the open ocean. To overcome these obstacles, the team proposes to build inexpensive underwater drones that will tow large grids, to which the kelp is attached. These autonomous drones will be capable of towing the farms from sunlight-rich surface water during the day to nutrient-rich deep water during the night, and will submerge the farms to avoid storms and passing ships. A prerequisite for this vision will be successful demonstration of depth-cycling kelp plants from the surface to the deep ocean. Working with researchers at the University of Southern California, Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, Marine BioEnergy will develop and deploy first-of-kind technology to assess and apply this unique concept of kelp depth-cycling for deep water nutrient uptake to kelp production. Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will convert this kelp to biocrude and document the quality. This technology could enable large-scale energy crop production in many regions of the open ocean, with an initial focus on the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone off California.

Potential Impact:

If successful, Marine BioEnergy would be able to grow giant kelp in open water to create an abundant and affordable feedstock for low-carbon biocrude.


Increasing the production of domestic biofuels would help diversify the resources we rely on for transportation, thus further reducing dependence upon imported crude oil.


The proposed technology would enable commercial biomass farming to be deployed in the open ocean, thereby reducing the demand for artificial fertilizer, land, and freshwater resources.


Marine BioEnergy projects the cost of its biocrude to be competitive with conventional petroleum.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Simon Freeman
Project Contact:
Mr. Brian Wilcox
Press and General Inquiries Email:
Project Contact Email:


Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
University of Southern California, Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies

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