Friday, October 20 , 2017, 11:24 am | Fair 73º

 
 
 
 
Posted on September 21, 2017 | 9:00 a.m.

Cultivating Kelp as New Biofuel

Source: Julie Cohen/Andrea Estrada for UCSB

One of the most productive organisms on Earth, giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) depends on nutrients from the surrounding water column to
maintain its photosynthetic apparatus and maximize growth rates, which can reach a foot and a half a day.

Such prolific growth makes giant kelp an excellent candidate to replace corn as a biofuel. While this species naturally grows close to shore, it easily could be farmed in deeper waters.

This is the focus of a new project called Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER), which seeks to develop offshore kelp farms to produce kelp biomass as a novel energy source.

A team of UCSB scientists will receive $2.1 million over three years from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to develop and test technologies that monitor large-scale giant kelp farms.

Led by David Siegel, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Geography and the campus’s Earth Research Institute, the team will combine and refine existing technology to enable farm managers to carefully monitor kelp beds and maximize yields.

“We’ll be taking what we’ve learned from our research on natural kelp forests and applying those technologies to develop underwater robotic and above-water drones to help kelp farm managers monitor their crops,” Siegel said.

“Using the natural kelp forests off the Santa Barbara coast, we will fine-tune the relationships between optical and acoustic signals and kelp forest properties to build an end-to-end system farmers can use to monitor and optimize crops and even determine when to harvest them,” he said.

The United States has the world’s largest marine exclusive economic zone, an area of ocean along the nation’s coastlines equivalent to the total land area of all 50 states.

This vast expanse has the potential to leverage kelp into a thriving marine biomass industry for the production of fuels, chemicals, feed and food.

Growing macroalgal biomass in the oceans would provide a unique opportunity to sidestep many of the challenges associated with terrestrial biomass production systems —particularly the growing competition for land and freshwater resources likely to result from the 50- to 100-percent increase in food demand expected by 2050.

“In order for kelp farms to be successfully commercially, their biomass, productivity and physiological status must be monitored as well as the environmental conditions that control near-term production,” Siegel said.

“The rapid growth rate of this species, along with the ever-present potential of biomass losses due to frond senescence, herbivory and fouling, underscores the need for real time, autonomous monitoring data to assist in optimizing the operation of giant kelp aquaculture,” he said.

The UCSB researchers will use Scalable Aquaculture Monitoring System (SAMS) to address these needs by continuously assessing underwater and floating kelp biomass, physiological condition and production, along with the environmental factors known to affect kelp growth, all while delivering relevant information to farm managers in near real time.

SAMS is composed of aerial and underwater autonomous vehicles and sensors, tested and validated to provide an efficient suite of instruments capable of delivering metrics at the plant scale while possessing the flexibility to monitor multiple giant kelp farms simultaneously.

The team also includes Tom Bell, Bob Miller, Norm Nelson, Nick Nidzieko and Dan Reed, all from UCSB, and Kyle Cavanaugh of UCLA.

— Julie Cohen/Andrea Estrada for UCSB.

 
  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.



Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >