Seaweeds to biofuels

I was intrigued to read of the growing interest in using seaweeds as a source of biofuel across the globe and interested to know how Scotland could use its rich algae fields and extensive coastlines to capitalise on this. (Anything to do away with wind-farms!)

Some outstanding research has been done by the At-Sea project, a European research programme focusing on growing seaweeds on innovative textile mesh placed in shallow inshore waters, producing multiple annual harvests. One of the aims of the project is to develop a high tensile strength textile mesh and cables to act as a substrata, that is robust and durable enough to survive the tidal environment. The Scottish Association for Marine Science at Dunstaffnage near Oban, a key partner in the project, is also looking to design flexible and lightweight tanks to extend the project scope

Green seabeds June 2013 075Farming annual fast-growing macroalgae seaweeds like Ulva lactuca and Palmaria palmata, in manmade inshore seabeds could deliver massive yields for the green energy industry.  This would release a huge amount of land for food production now currently (and controversially)  being used grow corn, palm oil and sugar cane for bio-fuel production. More interestingly, some research and development by companies both here and in the USA, has pointed to a 3-part yield: nutrient rich oils for the health market; bio-fuels, methane and ethanol for energy; and fertiliser compounds of agriculture.

One of the issues up to now in using seaweed biomass to develop bio-fuel has been the difficulty in finding a way to ferment the sugar from seaweed to turn it into ethanol. One Indian company , Sea6Energy, has developed a process using normal yeast  to create a successful fermentation process for red seaweeds, whilst researchers at Berkeley, California have focused on developing genetically modified bacteria to do the trick.

Further research from the University of Delaware has found that one microscopic algae, Heterosigma akashiwo (common worldwide) actually grows on toxic gas emitted by power plants, neutralising what is currently a harmful and noxious substance. In fact the algae in this process actually thrive, growing twice as fast as normal and so producing huge amounts of carbohydrates that can be converted to biofuel – a real win-win situation!


The Hearald:

Sea6 Energy:

Science Mag

Milsey Bay

Calm pools off Milsey Bay

Calm pools off Milsey Bay

On Sunday I walked out to the long reefs of red rock that extend from the flanks of the baleen Seabird centre at the western edge of Milsey Bay. Churning white horses cover them at full tide on a windy day, but left on their own when calm returns they reveal worlds of aquatic beauty in the pools and crevices carved into the rocky beds.  Closer to the shore, the flat outcrops are blanketed by a tight weave of Fucus spiralis and green gutweed (Ulva intestinalis).  As the reef stretches out to sea, it changes to a moonlike topography of crustaceous life; from the tiny silvery eyes of a thousand pinpoint barnacles, to scores of domed limpets and black-eyed snails, edged by reef river beds of sea mosses, Corallina clusters and banks of Pepper Dulse (Osmundea pinnatifida).

Deep rock pool

Deep rock pool

Crater-like holes are the refuge of tiny capricious crabs that scuttle the sandy bottom of their domains, clutching their protective shells tightly, beachcombing for tide-borne treasure. Luminous eyes of a wandering sea green fish watch from the shadowy fringes of Ulva latuca, while tiny flat speckled sea bugs dart back and forth across their aquaria home.

I had come to this side of the town’s beaches to find the elusive Lithothamnions glimpsed on a earlier foray. Indigenous to Scotland, and residing primarily along the rocky outcrops of the East Coast, they are distinguishable by their calcareous forms and brilliant purple and pink hues resembling splatters of dripped paint.

Red rock and purple Lithothamnion

Red rock and purple Lithothamnion

Some Lithothamnions are crusty, with microscopic volcanic-like protrusions, covering loose stones and rocks in the deeper pools. Others splay out like lichens, on smooth, flat rock pool bottoms, always just under the lowest surface water.  Set against the red-orange stone, their vivid pigmentation creates a startling abstract expression of colour, light and form at the base of these shimmering pools.

Shining Sands

Bench by sea - North BerwickWalking down to the beach the other evening, I found the tide at its lowest ebb, the sands drawn smooth by the ocean’s pull, and an ethereal glow infusing water’s edge to grassy shore. Opaque hues of iridescent blue and ribbons of red and gold fanned across the shimmering panorama/canvas. Funnels of light poured through the backlit clouds, illuminating and shifting  colours, pushing and pulling shadows and shades to dance across the expanse. Yellow lichened rocks sparkled in the warming light and the Bass glowed luminous across the white-licked waves.  The lapping tide arrested its movement and a golden peace descended; all breath expelled into gossamer air  –  the sea, the sky and the earth resting for a moment to let the tide turn.

Sand treesReturning from the shore, I watched the trickles of tidewater heading home, carving tracery fingers into the soft sandy banks and fringes of pools to leave transitory motifs of their passing. Sometimes these look like silhouettes of ancient forests; hills lined with gnarled trees,  limbs and branches stretching into rivulets of sand. Sometimes like the stream beds of dry deserts, pummeled, molded and then swept away  by the wind.

IMG_0055The sands, newly washed clean, started to shift with life again. Wiggles of worm casings spiraled up across the wettest shores, tiny flies emerged from crusted pockets of sand, and the dunes released sprays of summer swallows in hot pursuit. The sandpipers resumed their tide line inspections and the gulls called out cacophonously for a final hunt.