The push for renewable energy in the U.S. often focuses on well-established sources of electricity: solar, wind and hydropower. Off the coast of California, a team of researchers is working on what they hope will become an energy source of the future — macroalgae, otherwise known as kelp.
The Pacific Coast is known for its vast kelp forests. It's one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, and farming it requires no fertilizer, fresh water, pesticides, or arable land. "It can grow 2 to 3 feet per day," says Diane Kim, one of the scientists running the kelp research project at the University of Southern California.
Kelp is transformed into biofuel by a process called thermochemical liquefaction. The kelp is dried out, and the salt is washed away. Then it's turned into bio-oil through a high-temperature, high-pressure conversion process.
Some small companies are growing kelp as a substitute for kale in the U.S., but that's exactly the problem – very, very few are doing it. Thus, the infrastructure and investment isn't in place to make other products from kelp, like biofuel.
"We're testing out a concept that would enable large-scale, open-ocean farming," she says. "And what that would essentially do is grow enough kelp to make it economically feasible to make it cost competitive and maybe one day, provide a source of clean, sustainable, non-polluting source of energy to compete with fossil fuels."
Twenty-five miles from downtown Los Angeles, on sunny Catalina Island, Kim and her colleagues operate a center called the Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies. The clean, deep waters off the island provide a great environment for research.
Harvesting kelp in California for commercial purposes is not unprecedented. "They did have these large boats that gave the kelp a haircut, harvesting kelp along the California coast," Kim explains. During World War I, kelp was used to make gunpowder. By the 1960s, a company in San Diego harvested kelp to make products like alginate, which is a solidifying agent in ice cream and cosmetics.
Here on Catalina Island, Kim and her colleagues are trying to build a machine that would raise and lower kelp beds to get sunlight in the shallow water and nutrients in the deep water. This would allow them to farm miles from shore. They call the device a "kelp elevator."
There are real obstacles to creating large-scale kelp farms in the U.S., though.
"At the moment, they're way behind the curve," says University of Hawaii tenured researcher Michael Cooney of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. He says countries in Asia and Scandinavia are much farther along than the U.S.
One of the main reasons for this discrepancy is that these countries have been growing kelp for food for many years. "They already have a pre-existing infrastructure that's pretty sophisticated for growing and harvesting," Cooney explains. "It's harvesting for food and other products, but a lot of that capital's already in place. And that's a much better starting point than small companies in the U.S. that try to go from ground zero to a transportation fuel."
In Sweden, people have been farming seaweed for a long time. "The first thing we do with the high-quality kelp, we do it for food, actually, "says Fredrik Grondahl of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. He says selling kelp for food is very profitable.
"The next part is to make feed ingredients," Grondahl adds. "And then we are also extracting polymers from the kelp to do bioplastics and adhesives and maybe also textiles." The leftover kelp is turned into biofuel, so the clean energy aspect is just one of many uses for kelp in Scandinavia.
The Wrigley Institute scientists don't use natural populations of kelp, but grow their own in a nursery, starting from spores. They tie the juvenile kelp to long, white PVC pipes and drop them into the water. Eventually they hope to create sheets of kelp plants hundreds of yards across.
Ken Nealson, director of the Wrigley Institute, takes us out onto the water in a boat to see the test site where they've already dropped a pipe 30 feet below the surface, with small kelp plants sprouting off of it. Nealson straps on scuba gear and dives down to inspect the project, while bass and other marine life circle around him.
"What you see here is the beginning of something that can really revolutionize bio-fuel production, if it works on a large scale," he explains. "You can imagine growing enough kelp to supply a percentage of the bioenergy that's needed in this country."
"Imagine" is the key word here. This experiment is in its earliest stages. By September, the researchers hope to put a full-scale kelp elevator in the water. And if that works, then someday years from now, endless miles of ocean could one day become farmland.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When we talk about clean energy, a few sources come up again and again - solar, wind, hydropower. The other day, I got a firsthand look at a product that researchers hope can become a major renewable energy source of the future, kelp - as in seaweed. The University of Southern California runs a research center on Catalina Island about 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Getting there is not a typical LA commute.
LANCE IGNON: To the left there, you'll see a big kelp bed off the coast in that cove right there.
SHAPIRO: Lance Ignon of USC's Dornsife College joined us for a short helicopter flight across the water. We're talking over headsets mounted onto our earphones to drown out the noise. The view drives home an important point. The Earth has way more room to farm in the ocean than on land.
We've turned away from the coastline. And now we're going out over the open ocean.
IGNON: Uniquely, it's a deep-water channel, which provides very clean water at Catalina, which is critical when you're doing experiments.
SHAPIRO: Catalina Island is appearing on the horizon, coming out of the mist. It feels like a scene out of "King Kong" or "Jurassic Park," but we're really only 25 miles off the coast of Los Angeles.
IGNON: And no dinosaurs.
SHAPIRO: No dinosaurs as far as you know.
IGNON: (Laughter) As far as I know.
SHAPIRO: And here we are, touched down on Catalina Island.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER ENGINE)
KEN NEALSON: Hi. I'm Ken Nealson, the director of the Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies.
SHAPIRO: Should I call you Dr. Nealson?
NEALSON: No, you should call me Ken (laughter).
SHAPIRO: No, he emphatically says, in his Hawaiian shirt. Ken, what are we going to do first?
NEALSON: We're going to go up to the lab, have a look at the kelp nursery where we're growing the small kelp plants. Then, when we're all done with that, we'll head out to the water.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK. Let's go.
Inside the research center, they've built models of a machine that would raise and lower kelp to get sunlight in the shallow water and nutrients in the deep water. They call it a kelp elevator. Diane Kim is one of the researchers running this project.
DIANE KIM: We're testing out a concept that would enable large-scale, open-ocean farming. And what that would essentially do is grow enough kelp to make it economically feasible, to make it cost-competitive and maybe one day provide a source of clean, sustainable, nonpolluting source of energy to compete with fossil fuels.
SHAPIRO: You can't farm on a beautiful Santa Monica beach to take all the (laughter) kelp out of the water that might be growing there.
KIM: Right, right, right. Although, in the early 1900s and even through the '60s, they did have these large boats that gave the kelp a haircut...
KIM: ...You know, harvested kelp along the California coast, yeah, yeah.
SHAPIRO: For what?
KIM: In the early 1900s, they used it for gunpowder, actually, for war efforts.
KIM: Yeah (laughter).
SHAPIRO: You talk about open-water farming. I've seen mussel farms in the ocean, oyster farms...
SHAPIRO: ...Even salmon farms.
SHAPIRO: How similar is this to that sort of thing?
KIM: I mean it's the same concept as far as, you know, it's aquaculture. It's just using kelp as our organism to grow. And one of the great things about kelp is that it's one of the fastest-growing organisms on earth. People have...
KIM: Yeah (laughter). People have documented two to three feet per day in growth.
SHAPIRO: Per day?
KIM: Per day, yeah. So I mean combined with the incredible growth rates that we've observed with the fact that you don't need a lot of natural resources - right? - you don't need freshwater. You don't need land. You don't need fertilizer. So combined, I mean it seems like an ideal source for biofuel.
SHAPIRO: There are high hopes and lots of obstacles before biofuel from kelp can rival other renewable energy sources.
MICHAEL COONEY: Well, at the moment, yeah, they're way behind the curve.
SHAPIRO: Michael Cooney is at the University of Hawaii in the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. He says some countries in Asia and Scandinavia are farther along than the U.S.
COONEY: But they've been working with kelp for quite a long time for food. So they have - they already have a pre-existing infrastructure that's pretty sophisticated for growing and harvesting. Now, it's harvesting for food or other products, but a lot of that capital is already in place. And that's a much better starting point than small companies in the United States that try to go from ground zero to a transportation fuel.
SHAPIRO: He says you can look at a biofuel like ethanol from corn. People have been growing corn in the U.S. for hundreds of years. That gave the energy industry an infrastructure that kelp doesn't have yet, at least not domestically. In Sweden, people have been farming plants in the ocean for a long time.
FREDRIK GRONDAHL: My name is Fredrik Grondahl, and I work at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.
SHAPIRO: He treats kelp the way ambitious chefs might treat a pig - find a use for every part but the squeal.
GRONDAHL: So the first thing we do with the high-quality kelp - we do it for food, and that is very good pay. And then we are also extracting polymers from the kelp to do bioplastics and adhesives and maybe also textiles.
SHAPIRO: So biofuel is just one of many uses for Kelp in Scandinavia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULL SQUAWKING)
SHAPIRO: Here on Catalina Island, the scientists at the Wrigley Institute are focusing on technology that would allow kelp farmers to vastly increase the scale of their crop. Director Ken Nealson takes me out on the water to see the work up close.
We're on the boat. I've got my wetsuit and my belt. The water is beautiful. We're going to go out and see this kelp elevator.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASH)
SHAPIRO: Underwater, bass and other fish swim around the experiment site. That's another added benefit. Kelp farms can be rich habitats for sea life. Our scuba masks have little microphones in them so we can talk to each other.
So here in the bay just off Catalina, we've got a 30-foot-long white pole suspended in the water. And every foot or so, there's a little kelp plant - 1 or 2 feet tall. If this experiment works, what would this look like on a large scale?
NEALSON: You can imagine farming this with only sea water instead of fresh water and growing enough kelp to supply a percentage of the bioenergy that's needed in the country.
SHAPIRO: Imagine is the key word here. This experiment is still in its earliest stages. By September, the researchers hope to put a full-scale kelp elevator out in the water. And if that works, then someday years from now, endless miles of ocean could one day be farmland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.