"We were really the first to think of that," Parekh said. The microbe takes sugar from the seaweed and thus far can produce ethanol as a byproduct.
The company plans to work with genetic engineers at DuPont to further perfect the microbe -- programming it to produce biobutanol.
'It can look easy on paper'
The other piece of the puzzle is that biobutanol is really an experimental biofuel itself. DuPont says it has already succeeded at extracting sugar from corn and converting it into biobutanol in the lab, but it has yet to scale up the operation.
The company will not disclose how much butanol it expects to produce from seaweed, citing competitive reasons.
Parekh says that the companies believe they will one day be "competitive" with petroleum, and as a bonus, they will be able to avoid the steep up-front costs microalgae farmers face to create pools for their algae.
BAL could theoretically just lease some offshore areas from the government and farm the seaweed there. The company, which also has a site in Chile, is still considering locations in both the United States and abroad as potential farm destinations. The site selection will also determine its seaweed of choice, since it hopes to grow seaweed that is native to its surroundings.
DuPont estimates that if just 2.5 percent of America's coastline were used for seaweed growth -- all along the continental shelf in those areas -- 6.8 billion gallons of fuel could be produced per year.
The companies maintain that they do not see seaweed as better than other types of algae, just as another biofuel option. "We can't get ourselves over the capital hurdle around microalgae yet, but we're really watching both areas," DuPont's Danielson said.
The companies plan to start work with the seaweed in early 2010 and work on the early stages of the project over the next two years while funded by the ARPA-E grant. Though they don't expect the product will be close to market-ready at that time, they hope to better gauge whether it will be feasible to continue research on this track.
"With R&D, it can look easy on paper," Parekh said, "but you can run into all sorts of challenges."
Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500