Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fishing for biofuels

Well, it sounds a bit crazy but amazingly it turns out to be true. I originally overheard this at a recent conference on biofuels where some venture capitalists hosted a lunch to discuss new possible sources of biofuel production. And a representative of a major international fishing company said they had been approached by a small Pacific Island nation promoting the following idea. The plan is to harvest ALL biomass in their territorial waters surrounding the island and to turn this biomass into fuel. The way they see it, fish, seaweed, algae, and other organisms contain vast reservoirs of material that if processes efficiently could become a significant new source for ethanol production. The questions they were asking related to how much it would cost to simply design giant nets that could collect everything in the water. Apparently, they were even interested in what it would take to collect algae and other microbes.

The way they see it, biofuel production may be more financially rewarding than selling fish and if they could make use of all the other stuff in the water, they might have enough biomass to produce vast amounts of fuel.

I personally love this idea. People are struggling to squeeze the last little bit out of the light that hits the surface of the land on the planet in terms of balancing food and fuel production. So why not simply collect biomass directly from the oceans and turn this into raw material for biofuels? The key question is - how much material could one get? It turns out, quite a bit. It is estimated that the microbial content of ocean surface water is enormous (in particular if one includes the viruses). All one would need is a way of filtering these organisms out of the water (or maybe precipitating them) to supplement the biomass found in the seaweed and larval invertebrates and other organisms. And much of this material will be much easier to process than plant biomass since one will not have the problem of converting lignin and cellulose into usable carbon compounds.

So I believe the time is ripe for an ocean biomass conversion program to be begun to supplement that biofuel production on land. Seems to me like BP and Chevron and the oil companies should be looking into this since they already know a great deal about harvesting material in a marine environment.

NOTE - this is the first posting in a new biofool initiative here at the Tree of Life. Though I support some aspects of the biofuel movement, other parts I think need some reworking. Stay tuned for more brilliant commentary on the issue.


  1. Jonathan,
    I beseech you to use a font or other meta-tag to indicate sarcasm, irony or some other lesser known (in the USA) form of communication twist.

    I can almost see this being lifted (hey, its CC, and worse, with attribution) and included in a prospectus:

    "Prominent microbial geneticist, Jonathan Eisen, from the University of California, agrees with CarpetBioGgers Inc, that microbial biomass from the sea can serve as a limitless supply of funding from a gullible VC world".

  2. Yeah yeah, I know. But in the end, satire is best when it is unclear if it is really satire.

  3. You may be interested to know that Grahamstown University in South Africa have been working with the concept of algaediesel from rural fishponds for some 15 years. See www.southafrican.coop. The beauty of this system is that agrofuel comes as a spinoff from food production and the added value is retained by the farmers.

  4. Maybe Craig Venter's high-throughput ocean sequencing apparatus could be rigged so that the waste fed right into a diesel engine.