he Department of Energy has just announced $22 million in funding through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) for 18 innovative projects as part of the Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER) program. MARINER projects are intended to develop the tools to enable the United States to become a leading producer of macroalgae, or seaweed, helping to improve U.S. energy security and economic competitiveness. Macroalgae can be utilized as a feedstock for domestic transportation fuels, chemicals and other commercial products without competing with food crops for land and water.
“From Alaska to the Gulf Coast, the United States has offshore resources capable of producing enough seaweed to handle as much as 10 percent of our demand for transportation fuel,” said ARPA-E Acting Director Eric Rohlfing. “By focusing on the technological challenges to growing and harvesting macroalgae efficiently and cost-effectively, MARINER project teams are building the tools we need to fully put this resource to work contributing to our energy future.”
Today, nearly all domestic biomass produced for electricity generation and liquid fuels occurs on land. While macroalgae production has increased substantially over the past quarter-century, it is not currently capable of achieving the scale, cost, and efficiency needed for an impactful seaweed-to-fuels process. Achieving this heightened productivity requires a technology-driven approach focusing on transformative, systems-level improvements and engineering, including advanced research in farm design and autonomous operation.
ARPA-E project teams rely on partnerships to encourage the exchange of new ideas and achieve the most innovative outcomes. Because impactful macroalgae fuel production remains an extremely ambitious prospect, overcoming the early-stage R&D challenges presented by MARINER requires cross-disciplinary collaboration, drawing on fields such as cultivation and harvesting systems, advanced components, computer modeling, aquatic monitoring, and advanced breeding and genetics tools to achieve program goals.
The full list of MARINER projects can be found HERE. Examples of selected MARINER projects include:
University of Alaska Fairbanks – Fairbanks, AK
Development of Scalable Coastal & Offshore Macroalgal Farming (Category I) – $500,000
The University of Alaska Fairbanks team will develop replicable scale model farms capable of the cost-effective production of sugar kelp, a type of seaweed. The UAF project aims to reduce capital cost using purpose-built designs while simplifying installation and production to lower operational expenses. The team seeks to integrate the entire farming process, including seed production, out-planting, grow-out, harvest, and re-seeding. A particular emphasis will be on the development of cost-effective harvesting methods based on technologies applied in the commercial fishing industry. Test deployments for the integrated system are planned for locations in Alaska and New England.
University of Southern Mississippi – Hattiesburg, MS
SeaweedPaddock Pelagic Sargassum Ranching (Category I) – $500,000
The University of Southern Mississippi team will develop a semi-autonomous enclosure to contain fields of free-floating Sargassum mats. Wave-powered tugs, operated remotely onshore by a single person, will move the enclosure to ensure maximum exposure to nutrients. The system is designed to never return to shore, while the pilot can relocate the enclosure to avoid storms and ships—or move it into “dead zones” where excessive nutrients can be taken up by the seaweed, improving ocean health.