Difficulty controlling seaweed probably also kept interested companies focused on the more manageable microalgae, since it's so small, Graham said. A startup could more easily select a preferred strain of algae, grow it in a man-made pond on land, and oversee the process, he said. Of course, the downside to that, says BAL, is that it can be a costly endeavor.
Most U.S. seaweed operations, like Maine Seaweed Co., harvest a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of tons of seaweed naturally available along the U.S. coast, but BAL hopes to farm its own.
Parekh says his company, which is in charge of growing seaweed for its biobutanol project, is interested in farming the seaweed because it is more environmentally sustainable.
"One of the challenges of harvesting a natural seaweed bed is you can only do a certain percent of the bed if you don't want to have a negative environmental impact," he said. "The economics of production suggest that we'll be better off if we grow our own seaweed and locate it close to our plant."
But to farm enough seaweed to support mass production of a biofuel would be a large departure from current U.S. practices.
Graham has one of the few seaweed farms in the United States -- perhaps the largest -- and he only grows about a ton of seaweed a year to augment abalone snails' diet.
If successful, though, the payoff could be well worth it. Biobutanol advocates, including DuPont, say the fuel could work better in automobiles than the better-known ethanol and will be easier to transport.
The key to unleashing seaweed's biobutanol potential is in a BAL-designed microbe that lives entirely off of seaweed as a carbon source, the company says.