Researchers from the University of Illinois may have discovered a new super crop for biofuels: red seaweed.
Yong-Su Jin, a University of Illinois assistant professor of microbial genomics says that red seaweed and other marine biomass offers many advantages compared to terrestrial biomass. According to Jin, marine biomass can easily be degraded, where as scientists have had a very difficult breaking down the tough recalcitrant lingin fibers of terrestrial feedstocks. As a result, marine biomass can converted into fermentable sugars much easier.
In fact, part of the problem with producing biofuel from red seaweed comes from the fermentable sugars it produces. In the production process, glucose is not the only sugar that is produced; so is galactose. Historically, fermenting galactose has been highly inefficient.
However, Jin and his colleagues have recently identified three genes in form of yeast that can increase galactose fermentation by 250%. Oever expression of these genes allowed the new strain of yeast to consume both sugars in 8 hours, versus the 24 hours it took the control strain to consume the sugars. Jin said, "This discovery greatly improves the economic viability of marine biofuels."
If easier production is not enough, the advantages of marine biofuels also include the fact they yield more fuel per unit area and can absorb carbon dioxide at much higher rates than terrestrial biomass.
If these findings can help develop marine biomass into a viable commercial feedstock, there may be a new rising star in the biofuel game. Marine biomass could be especially attractive for island nations or peninsular communities, which would not have to concede valuable land resources to biofuel production.
Despite its intrigue there is some caution regarding mass commercial production of marine biomass. As CleanTechnica points out, increased cultivation of marine biomass, such as red seaweed, could subject the tenuous existence of the world's oceans and marine life to even greater stresses than they are already experiencing.
Image credit: Melissa Dorquez via Flickr
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