Innovation Partnership Could Pave Way For Fuel From Seaweed

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Results from a METRC-funded partnership are playing a key role in a project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to establish an integrated supply and processing pipeline for the sustainable manufacture of liquid hydrocarbon fuels from seaweed.

In April 2012, METRC awarded Silage Solutions and Durham University a proof of concept fund to assess the feasibility of a new technology (patent pending) to preserve marine biomass for feedstocks to the commodity and fine chemical sector, as well as – potentially – for bioenergy.

Silage Solutions provides independent research and advice on feed conservation to the agricultural community. They were particularly interested in exploring this new route since seaweed must be preserved at the point of harvest so that a constant supply is available throughout the year.

Marine biomass such as microalgae has long been processed for the production of chemicals, and as a fine chemical it is used in a range of biodegradable nanocomposites and packaging, edible barrier coatings, excipients in pharmaceuticals, rheology modifiers and hydrogels.

Silage Solutions worked with Durham University to develop a technology that preserves the macroalgae for up to 9-12 months. The process involved taking preserved biomass, extracting and analysing the structural alginate polymers and contrasting the rheological (and other) behaviour with commercially available alginates.

This partnership has now expanded into the MacroBioCrude consortium, a partnership of five universities and six industrial partners. Led by the University of Durham[SJ1] , the consortium has received £1.6m from the EPSRC to explore methods of seaweed gasification and upgrading. In parallel, the team will establish an innovation platform for this novel bio-fuel supply chain, which assess the overall process footprint, supply chain relationships and public/end-user perceptions.

Seaweed makes an ideal sustainable feedstock to contribute to the manufacture of high energy density liquid transport fuels since it does not compete with foodcrops for land or water, has a rapid growth cycle combined with high solar efficiency approximately three times greater than terrestrial biomass, and can be grown alongside other water-based activities such as offshore wind farms and fish farms.

Dr Chris Greenwell, lead investigator from Durham University on the project, explains: “METRC funding allowed us to study this novel technique, with key results used in a bid for a £1.6M project from the EPSRC, which included other colleagues from Durham University and different industrial partners. A new company will also be established by the inventors of the technique develop and exploit the preservation technique”.

Dr Dave Davies of Silage Solutions Ltd said “The METRC project enabled key analyses to be carried out. The results of which prove beyond doubt that the preservation technologies employed on the seaweed had not only preserved the crop in a visibly unchanged state but also that the chemical composition, even 15 months post preservation, remained largely unchanged, thus making this a commercially viable proposition for many desired end-uses of seaweed. The project team worked together very efficiently and the project was a resounding success so now, going forward ‘the inventors’ must be allowed to commercialise their knowhow, to ensure continued success and development.”

The MacroBioCrude consortium is led by Phil Dyer (Centre for Sustainable Chemical Processes, Durham University, and Royal Society Industry Fellow) and brings together researchers from five universities and 6 industrial partners:

  • Durham University (Phil Dyer – Chemistry; Chris Greenwell – Earth Sciences)
  • Victoria Wells – Business School)Aberystwyth University (Joe Gallagher – Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies)
  • Swansea University (Robin Shields – Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture Research)
  • Greenwich University (Pat Harvey, Bioenergy/Life Sciences)
  • Highlands and Islands University (Alan Bourhill – Marine Science and Technology)
  • Johnson Matthey Catalysts
  • Davy Process Technology
  • Silage Solutions Ltd
  • Shell
  • CPI
  • Tata Steel.

METRC Innovation Awards support new research and innovation projects between the universities of Bradford, Durham, Newcastle and Sheffield and companies in the fields of Nanotechnology, Science and Engineering. Call 3 is currently open for applications, and will close on 19 April 2013. For more information see the METRC website.