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USC Scientists Have Found A Way To Mass Produce Kelp For Biofuel

A diver attaches seaweed to a prototype of a device called the “kelp elevator.” (USC Photo/David Ginsburg)
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Could cars, trucks and planes be fueled by seaweed one day?

Researchers at USC's Wrigley Institute on Catalina Island have been testing an innovative method of growing kelp that could make that a reality, by dramatically speeding up the algae's growth process.

Kelp is considered a viable source of renewable energy. Unlike other biofuels, it doesn't take pesticides or fertilizer to produce, and it's naturally fast-growing. But up until now, there hasn't been a way to cultivate enough of it to make it cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

As The Wrigley Institute's Diane Kim explains, that's where the "kelp elevator" comes in:

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"[It's] basically taking the kelp down to depths where you find an abundant amount of nutrients and then bringing them back up to near the surface where they can then be exposed to light to photosynthesize."

Instead of waiting for the seasonal process that brings the nutrients up to the ocean surface where the kelp grows, the scientists brought the kelp down, and then back up – over and over again for 90 days.

"What we found was that the depth-cycled kelp actually grew faster," Kim says. "This was really exciting for us, because, I mean, we really weren't sure how the kelp would respond to depth-cycling."

The change in underwater pressure didn't damage the kelp, like the researchers thought it might — instead the process yielded about four times as much growth as the natural process would.

The company Marine BioEnergy, designed and built the system for the study and is now designing technology for open-ocean kelp farms.

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