Robots could grow your future fuel

Researchers believe that kelp could be an economic answer to biofuel. It doesn’t have some of the same challenges that corn has to make ethanol.

Key Points

  • Kelp could be a significant energy source in the future.
  • Researchers are working on a way to make more seaweed.
  • This seaweed would be made into a biocrude and used as gasoline or jet fuel. 

If researchers in California are right, in a few years, robotic submarines might be growing a green slime that is then processed into fuel.

No, this is not the storyline for an Amazon aliens-take-over-the-world-pilot episode.

Founders of Marine BioEnergy are starting a two-year study that tests a new way to grow kelp that could then be turned into biofuel.

The seaweed usually only grows along the coast. But for it to be a real player in bioenergy, we’d need a lot more of it.

The challenge is getting the weed the right combination of sunlight and nutrients it needs to thrive.

The sunlight is available in shallow water, and the nutrients are on the sea floor. To get seaweed to grow farther out in the ocean where there’s room to farm it in mass, a solution was needed to get it all the perks of the coastline out in the deep blue.

That’s where Marine BioEnergy comes in.

The startup is using robotic submarines to move a long line of seaweed up and down. Think of it like when your kids push every button on the elevator and just ride up and down without getting off. If kelp were a kid, it would be having the time of its life. This movement lets the weed get the best of both worlds.

But why the push to even make kelp an energy player?

Researchers believe that kelp could be an economic answer to biofuel. It doesn’t have some of the same challenges that corn has to make ethanol. Corn has lots of lignin or cellulose. This means it takes more steps to process it into a usable fuel. Kelp doesn’t have nearly as much lignin or cellulose, so once you have it, it would be easier — and cheaper — to turn into fuel.

The company is working with one of the Department of Energy’s national labs to figure out the most cost-effective way to make the kelp into a fuel.

Now, we just need to see if the weeds can grow.

And maybe grow so much that they take over the world and cover the entire earth in green slime.

I think I’ll pitch it to Amazon.


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned a degree in political science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the governor’s office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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