Bold and Beautiful: Turning Seaweed into Biofuels

A step closer to marine-derived biofuel

Seema Singh
Published: 31, Jan 2012

Until Dec 31,2013, I was a Senior Editor at Forbes India and I usually wrote about science and technology on this blog. I believe while we may have settled into consuming the nicely packaged final products of science - technology being a hand maiden of science - we are distancing ourselves from all the effort that goes into it. This blog was an attempt to bring occasional peek into those efforts and ideas. I've been a journalist for 17 years and have written for The Asian Age, The Times of India, Mint, Red Herring, IEEE-Spectrum, Cell, New Scientist and others. I'm now available at seema@seemasingh.in You will find my future articles on www.seemasingh.in

A fledgling, IIT-Madras incubated start-up, Sea6Energy, today signed a deal with the Danish company Novozymes, one of the world’s largest industrial biotech companies, to jointly develop a process for producing biofuels from seaweeds.

A routine thing in the West you’d say, where large companies tap the start-up innovation pool, but it’s still a rare event in India. The alliance, where each brings its own funds, will use enzymes to convert seaweed-based carbohydrates to sugar, which is then fermented to produce ethanol for fuel, fine chemicals, proteins for food, and fertilizers for plants.

So what does each get to the table when a virtual race is on globally to crack the biofuel code?

Novozymes’ India arm will look for new enzymes, develop, and manufacture them for the conversion; Sea6Energy, which has so far developed an offshore seaweed farming system (based on marine plastics polymer), will continue to develop its cultivation technology.

"Seaweed is a natural complement to our efforts to convert other types of biomass to fuel ethanol,” says Per Falholt, Executive Vice President and CSO of Novozymes. “More than half of the dry mass in seaweed is sugar, and the potential is therefore significant.”

More importantly, its involvement not only validates a start-up’s idea, but gives feasibility and scale to a technology that holds great promise for India where the food versus fuel debate casts a shadow on many biofuel initiatives and cost reduction remains a touch nut to crack.

“We see Sea6 Energy addressing the cost issue and the cultivation  platform which have been prohibitive in the past on exploring Seaweed and hence the collaboration,” GS Krishnan, Regional President, India, Novozymes. Comparing this technology to those being developed elsewhere, Krishnan sayseach is complementary to each other, not competing.” Moreover, each substrate varies in their characteristics too.

More on Sea6energy can be read here.

By choosing species of red algae, Sea6Energy is trying to develop feedstock that have much larger yield per hectare compared to land-based plants such as sugarcane, says Shrikumar Suryanarayan, chairman of Sea6energy. Moreover, there is no fertilizer or freshwater involved here. It also sidesteps the pressure on land issue, critical for India which, unlike Brazil or Africa, does not have high per capita land availability.

Sea6 Energy is currently testing its cultivation technology in partnership with a few fishing communities around the coastal areas of South India.

This research alliance shows it has all the making of a scalable technology. What however remains to be seen if the stakeholders also study the impact of large scale seaweed cultivation on the environment so that any environmental concerns arising along the way don’t dampen its prospects if and when it gets closer to the market.

 

 

 

 

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