Plant power on the rise at Sequim Bay lab
Algae and seaweed grown in the open ocean could provide biodiesel and even jet fuel, according to Michael Huesemann, a biochemical engineer at the Sequim Marine Sciences Laboratory. The facility, the only U.S. Department of Energy marine lab in the country, is a center for algal fuel research. -- Photo by Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News
By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News
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No, this isn't about offshore oil drilling.
Amid those marine currents are the waves of the future: lowly, soggy plants as the next coveted commodity.
Algae and seaweed, scientists and engineers in Sequim believe, can be cultivated and harvested to make jet fuel.
At the Marine Sciences Laboratory on Sequim Bay, Michael Huesemann, a biochemical engineer who grew up near Hamburg, Germany, is at the front of the quest for this next big thing called algal biofuel.
To him, it's not so new. Huesemann started working with algae six years ago, and has only recently seen interest in his research bloom like roses in a greenhouse.
Huesemann and his colleagues are used to toiling unnoticed by most people on the North Olympic Peninsula.
But the Sequim lab, which sits on 140 acres facing Sequim Bay, is the only U.S. Department of Energy marine research facility in the country.
More than 70 engineers and scientists work on coastal restoration and security projects, from reviving salmon habitat to research on how shellfish could detect a bioterrorist attack.
Battelle Memorial Institute, the company that operates the Sequim lab, conducts research for government and private entities, and took in $12 million in research contracts in fiscal 2008.
In algal biofuel research, the Energy Department of Energy has invested just $800,000 over the past five years, Huesemann said. In terms of research funding, that's a pittance.
But the landscape, and possibly the seascape, may be about to change.
The Boeing Co., Bill Gates' Cascade Investment firm and a cluster of venture capitalists are shining their financial lights on algae and seaweed, said Huesemann.
The Energy Department is considering an increase in its funding of algal fuel research, Huesemann said.
Boeing has formed the Algal Biomass Organization, a group pushing for faster development of algae-based fuel. Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic are among the newer members.
And since the beginning of 2007, Gates and a group of venture capitalists have poured $200 million into algal research, though Huesemann has yet to see a piece of that.
He said the Energy Department may increase its funding of the work in Sequim, to keep pace with the demand for biofuels.
Meantime, Huesemann continues to work with green slime, and boils his research down to short presentations for people such as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who visited the Sequim lab last week.
Algae emits no carbon, so it mitigates global warming, he began.
Growing it for fuel production would require ponds, but large gardens could also be grown at sea. Neither would take land away from food producers - unlike corn-based ethanol.
"We could do open-ocean aquaculture," Huesemann added, and turn large quantities of seaweed into another form of ethanol.
The scientific breakthroughs that would start algal fuel production on a large scale are five to 10 years off, he said.
Huesemann and his Sequim colleagues have developed methods of growing algae, manipulating the plants' cells and extracting from them lipids, or oils.
Those oils can then be harvested and transesterified, or chemically converted, into biodiesel or jet fuel. But at this point, production is still too low and slow.
For algae to be a viable biofuel ingredient Huesemann must find a way to increase the rate of oil production.
"The idea is to develop the cultural conditions," he said, that turn the plants into lipid-making machines.
In the Sequim lab, the engineers can create just about any climatic condition they need.
They use Sequim Bay water -- some of the cleanest in the Pacific Ocean -- to fill their test tanks. They also draw upon years-long attention spans, as they seek to unlock plants' chemical capabilities.
Mix of conditions
When working with algae, "you can't just put seeds in the ground," Huesemann said. His team of scientists must try myriad pond conditions, add enriched air and use machines to mix the water.
We're only a few decades into the study of water plants, added Huesemann. Land-plant production, aka agriculture, has been the subject of intense study for thousands of years.
The urgency quotient is high now, with biofuel refiners' hunger for fresh sources, and the country's desire to wean itself off foreign oil.
But biotechnologist Guri Roesijadi, a member of the Sequim lab's staff, warned against a rush toward industrial production of new biofuels.
"We know what we want to have happen," he said, but "we have to do the hard work now."
Roesijadi likened an incautious race to biofuel production to accelerated government approval of drugs that turned out to have lethal side effects.
"We want to be really solid as we move forward," he said. "The optimal process is getting the homework done along the way."
In other wings of the Sequim Marine Sciences Laboratory, researchers are deep into other powers of salt water.
Ocean currents in the Strait of Juan de Fuca could one day generate electricity by driving turbines, said Charlie Brandt, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory staff scientist.
Tidal power is in line to become another renewable energy source, along with wind and solar energy - and it can be harnessed without destroying marine fish populations, Brandt added.
At the Sequim facility, "fish sensors" were developed: 4-inch devices built to have the same buoyancy and density as young salmon.
When released into marine waters, they behave like fish, and teach engineers how to construct "fish-friendly" turbines that cut the injury rate by 80 percent.
It's possible, Brandt said, to use the tides to run generators and protect even the smaller marine creatures.
In the Sequim lab's outdoor tanks, another humble plant grows in the direction of solving two major environmental problems.
Eelgrass, the focus of marine ecologist Ron Thom's research, could become bread and butter for coastal restoration work, since it blocks erosion and soaks up carbon dioxide.
"We're looking at carbon sequestration in sea grasses all over the world," Thom said.
The Energy Department calls sequestration -- plants' absorption of carbon - one of the most promising ways for reducing greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere.
Thom started his work with eelgrass many years ago; today he is deploying the native species in restoration projects in Puget Sound and the Columbia River Estuary.
"Dr. Thom has an international reputation in this field," said Andrea Copping, Coastal and Marine Waters Program manager at the Sequim lab.
She added that his tanks, full of water from Sequim Bay, are proving grounds for the plants and Thom's research.
"People thought you couldn't bring eelgrass into the lab, and that it would just die," Copping said.
Thom, like his Sequim colleagues, aims to demonstrate how marine plants can live in a lab on the North Olympic Peninsula - and grow into a green power source for the nation and the world.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at email@example.com
Last modified: October 14. 2008 9:20AM