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Biomass and Beyond: An Update on the Macroalgae Project with Fearless Fund’s Alyson Myers

Alyson Myers (of Fearless Fund) wearing a blue blouse, smiling warmly

In spring 2017, AboutThem spoke with Alyson Myers about her team’s macroalgae project, which sustainably farms oceans to produce energy, feed, and raw materials for the economy. As 2018 begins, Alyson updates us on the project scale, refinements, and funding, managed now by newly-launched organization Fearless Fund.

What is the latest news on your macroalgae project with Fearless Fund?

In August 2017, we received a letter stating that we had been approved for a Phase 1 grant from the Department of Energy/ARPA-E. ARPA-E is the Department of Energy’s out-of-the-box department that targets new technology to address critical energy needs. ARPA-E approved our grant request for the first year. Depending on how we do, they will approve funding for the remainder of the proposal. It’s kind of like dating… they want to make sure we’re really good.

As part of that, we are required to de-risk key components of our proposed idea. We have requested to farm algae in open ocean on a large scale to convert to fuel. No one has done this before! To be successful, we need to lift the current constraints in the $6 billion/year seaweed industry, which operates at “cottage” or small scale. A lab or hatchery typically creates spores and then deploys them to the ocean, where they grow until harvest when they are converted to energy, feed or possibly industrial thickeners (think ice cream). The DOE wants us to take this industry even larger. To understand their expectations, think about an idea that would allow you to first farm an area of 3.86 square miles and eventually farm an area of 386 square miles. They also gave us some cost information to think about. They gave us a per-ton production cost of land-based crops, and broke down the current cost of producing seaweed per ton. One part of the latter cost is for a hatchery, another part is for the farm, and the last is for harvest.

Initially, I looked at the numbers and thought the DOE’s goal was impossible. Then I realized (while standing on a beach in Florida, looking at the ocean!) that nature has already created a plant that floats, and so does not need aquaculture gear to reach sunlight!  This seaweed floats around the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and on the east coast of the US. I realized that that plant would help us reach the DOE targets—without the cost and risk of gear. It’s just as well, because aquaculture gear is always at risk in storms, can be detrimental to the environment, and cannot be used on a large scale.

Asking ourselves if it would indeed be possible to reduce or eliminate the need for aquaculture gear, we designed a technique around the floating seaweed. Then we realized we wouldn’t need a hatchery either. Instead, we expect to use technology (in the form of satellites and GPS drifters) all the way down to the top meter of oceans in order to copy what nature has already created, so we can produce an independent energy crop. The DOE approved our proposal, which was validation of the idea. The comments we received from reviewers on this idea were terrific!

I’ll add that we are still uncertain about whether we can actually do all this, but we believe we can. We are excited! Also, the DOE has done a fantastic job guiding our efforts to make our projects even better. They are phenomenally smart people. They want to see how we perform. As a guardian of federal money, I can’t think of any better way they could have conducted this project to this point.

How will this grant help your project?

Had the DOE not raised this question of how to produce biomass in open ocean at low cost, I would not have tried to answer such a huge question. I would have stayed in a small geographical area and thought in terms of running a small business instead of meeting US energy goals. By prompting us with their question, they encouraged me to come up with an answer and then put together a team to figure out the pieces of the puzzle that I didn’t know. Reading related literature and then contacting its authors to invite them to join our team (an invitation to which everyone said yes!) made all the difference. For example, one team member was the first to see these plants from satellite imagery. He could see where they grew and when, in the ocean. Everyone on our team has contributed a piece of the puzzle, and they get the opportunity to speak to one another to see how their pieces fit together.  This is an amazing process!

The grant begins in 2018 and lasts 11-12 months. Based on our progress during that time, I am hopeful that the DOE will decide that we have de-risked the parts of our proposal on which we currently have little or no information. At this point, we have created our work plan and are in the process of assigning our budget. This is all new and we’re still not sure how it will unfold… and of course, we need to stay within the grant amount. Everyone on our team does other things too, but we pay salary for those things we need. It is a great group, and they are dedicated to what we’re doing.

Have you been able to refine your process to grow, harvest, and produce marine biomass?

We believe we have. We brought a process engineer on board, and she assisted with writing the proposal to the DOE, and now I never want to work without a process engineer again. It was incredibly helpful!

How did your process engineer help you accomplish that?

The process engineer ran all the production numbers to help us answer questions about every aspect of the project, such as the cost per ton of biomass and how to meet an energy budget of 5:1 (i.e., energy production should be five times the energy used for the farming activity, understanding that it is prohibited to add fertilizers to the water). Right now, the cost per ton is based on land farming, which does not involve planning for storms or the use of boats, for instance. A process engineer designs the most efficient and least expensive process to accomplish a goal. We also had to calculate our energy budget and answer questions about the size of boats for the open ocean phase, whether we would use labor, whether we would dry the biomass at sea, and plenty of others. The process engineer helped us calculate all of this.

Who is involved with the project?

Our team includes scientists who work in satellite imagery, models, oceanography, algal physiology, and ocean engineering.

How are you publicizing your current efforts?

Just now we’re not publicizing our efforts; we’re working too hard on our plan and budget details for the federal grant. We need to speak to potential investors, but it’s a little early.

How do you measure the reduction of nutrient pollution?

You can do this through determining the chemical composition of the biomass and multiplying it by the amount of biomass you have. Pollution mitigation is frequently difficult to quantify on land, but there is a fairly simple formula to follow for macroalgae in oceans.

We will know how much carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus we have. Presently, there is too much CO2 in oceans causing acidification, and too much nutrient pollution in coastal waters causing dead zones. We hope we can provide a benefit there.

Last time we spoke (April 2017), you mentioned that you wanted to be growing biomass and have product examples within a year. Are you on track to meet those goals? What products do you expect to create?

The DOE has told us that it is too early for commercialization. We are still in the research phase, and we need to complete that research before we think about commercialization. That said, I’m always thinking about it. We may not hit our April 2018 target for product examples, but we will be harvesting biomass (raw material) and analyzing that material for products by that time.

What is your next project milestone?

We need to refine our budget for the DOE, have a kickoff meeting soon after 2018 begins, and then get to work.

Are there other solutions that might arise from this project?

We are doing something on a large scale, and thinking about optimum impact on our environment; we are thinking about creating energy and fuel from a new biomass type. Additionally, we are considering the problem of excess CO2 in oceans and air, asking ourselves, “How do we take it out of our [air and ocean] system, and where do we put it?”

We are already saving freshwater, fertilizers, and land, by growing plants in the ocean rather than on farm fields. In the ocean, we have all the water we need, we have fertilizers, and we don’t need land. We’re SO much better for the environment!

To that end, we are discussing what would happen if we took biomass and used it as a soil amendment—that is, if we returned it to the ground, to agricultural soil. There is some evidence that we could make an impact on our carbon concentrations by doing that; I’m talking about carbon sequestration in our soils. Over time, we have stripped carbon out of soils by using industrial fertilizers. We no longer have organic soil with critters living in it and storing the carbon. This would make our agriculture healthier and produce crops in a better way. The soil would hold water better, which would reduce fertilizer runoff and soil erosion. We must remember that we’re under contract with the DOE so we need to work within their parameters, but they have given us leeway to create co-products along the way to energy pricing.