UConn Professor Charles Yarish poses with two jugs of seaweed at the Marine Biotechnology Lab at the UConn-Stamford campus. Dr. Yarish is at the forefront of seaweed R&D, helping to develop new technologies to convert the algae into fuel.

Photo: Charlotte Weber/WSHU

UConn Professor Charles Yarish has spent his career studying seaweed, and he just got news that the federal government is going to fund one of his dream projects. The grant from the Department of Energy is $5.7 million, and will go to Dr. Yarish and colleagues at the University of Connecticut and a team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Their goal is to figure out if it would be viable to mass produce seaweed for use as biofuel in the federal waters 12 to 200 miles off the New England coast. That area has been designated by the U.N. as an exclusive economic zone.

“We haven’t been able to exploit this zone for areas of farming, and just imagine if you can grow seaweeds like kelp…this can propel a major industry in the U.S. for this type of aquaculture,” says Dr. Yarish.

The research team has been collecting samples of kelp, and growing them in their lab at the UConn-Stamford campus. Dr. Yarish keeps the seaweed in a refrigerated chamber that’s like an industrial walk-in fridge. To get from little, fuzzy, refrigerated kelp balls to mass production, they first need to develop the technology to be able to create a lot of kelp seed.

“We then have to develop the type of kelp that can withstand the rigors of the North Atlantic Ocean during the winter months,” he says.

Then they’ll work to figure out the most efficient way to cultivate the kelp. After they’ve done that, Dr. Yarish says they will be able to produce massive quantities of seaweed for biofuel “in a way that would cost less than $80 a ton.”

And, he says, mass producing seaweed comes with some extra benefits, too, like improving animal feed. “Today we now know that if you give animals, like cows and sheep, some seaweed in their diet, that can actually cut down on their methane gas production.”

Dr. Yarish’s project is one of 18 being funded by the Department of Energy to realize the potential of seaweed as biofuel. Marc von Keitz oversees the projects for the Department’s MARINER (Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources) program. “Dr. Yarish has been kind of the father of macroalgae in the U.S…,” Dr. Von Keitz said. “His laboratory has established a lot of methodologies already that are crucial in this project.”

Dr. Von Keitz says that in four years all of the MARINER projects will be completed, including one in Maine, and another in Massachusetts, aimed at increasing the efficiency of seaweed farming. By that point he hopes seaweed can become big business in the U.S.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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