Skip to Main Content U.S. Department of Energy
Institute for Integrated Catalysis

Seaweed: The New Biofuel

PNNL collaborates on ARPA-E project

(December 2015)

Laser device
PNNL and its partners are developing a new technology to make energy cleaner and more efficient with a grant from DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E. The technology will make biofuel from seaweed. Image courtesy Rayphoto, via Wikimedia Commons

Biofuel to run cars and generators could come from large swaths of seaweed grown in the open ocean. That's the vision of a new project just announced by the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E. The effort will be led by Marine BioEnergy, Inc., in collaboration with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego.

"The ARPA-E projects selected today highlight how American ingenuity can spur innovation and generate a wide range of technology options to address our nation's most pressing energy issues," Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a DOE news release. "As we look beyond COP21 (Paris climate talks), the energy technologies the Department of Energy invests in today will provide the solutions needed to combat climate change and develop a global low-carbon economy in the future."

Marine BioEnergy has proposed a patented method to grow one of the fastest producers of biomass, giant kelp, in the open ocean. Sunshine and space are abundant in the open ocean, but waters are too deep there for kelp to grow on the sea floor. Instead, Marine Bioenergy will develop technology to enable the eventual attachment of kelp to large grids towed by inexpensive robotic submarines that cycle between sunlight at the sea surface and nutrients in deeper waters. A team led by Scripps' James Leichter will develop and test critical technology for open ocean cultivation of kelp.

Once farmed, the kelp will be turned into biocrude oil and other hydrocarbon liquids through a conversion process developed by PNNL. Led by Laboratory Fellow Douglas Elliott, the PNNL team will develop a multi-step method that will combine hydrothermal liquefaction, catalytic hydrothermal gasification and hydrotreating -- all of which involve changes in temperature, pressure and water - to convert biomass. PNNL's method will cost-effectively turn kelp into hydrocarbons that are ready for final processing at a commercial oil refinery.

ARPA-E awarded the project a total of about $2.1 million over three years, with approximately $479,000 going to PNNL. The project is among 41 new technologies that were awarded a total of $125 million on Monday, November 23, by Secretary Moniz in Washington, D.C.

Institute for Integrated Catalysis

Research & Development


Seminars & Events


Working With Us