The Caribbean Sea is swimming in seaweed.Scientists aim to switch to jet fuel and batteries | News

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New research and development funded by the U.S. Department of Energy could help seed a unique Caribbean bioeconomy

Seaweed on the beach.
An unlikely combination: Combining wood waste and seaweed could be perfect for making both sustainable aviation fuel and graphite, an important battery material. Photo from iStock

It wasn’t even close. In 2022, the amount of seaweed floating in the Caribbean Sea will break the record set in 2018 by 20%. You can see its influence wafting along coastlines from Puerto Rico to the coast of Florida. Piles of brown algae invaded the white sandy beach. Local residents feared the flooding would harm tourism, clog the port and, if left to rot, emit harmful gases.

Unfortunately, record algae blooms aren’t the only visible effects of rising ocean temperatures. Some models suggest that rising ocean temperatures will also increase the risk of powerful hurricanes.

“Puerto Rico in particular is still processing wood waste from Hurricane Maria five years ago,” said Jacob Krueger, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “In Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean, wood waste just piles up with nowhere to go, because many of the landfills are also full.”

Kruger may not be able to solve these two waste problems himself, but as principal investigator on NREL’s new multi-institutional research team, he has ideas that can help. Materials used in electric car batteries.

The idea caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Bioenergy Technology. More than $2 million of his funding was awarded to a research team consisting of researchers from NREL, the University of Puerto Rico, North Carolina State University, and the Fearless Fund to investigate this idea. The team believes that if successful, the project could empower regions already affected by climate change and underrepresented in economic development.

Breakdown: Planning how the team will handle the mix

Although this combination may seem unlikely, combining wood waste and seaweed may actually provide the team with chemical benefits. Together, sargassum and wood chips produce a tasty raw material of simple sugars that microorganisms can digest into the molecules needed to create energy-dense biofuels.

To further enhance this opportunity, the team plans to adapt a set of already well-studied biological transformation tools, many of which were developed at NREL, into unique combinations.

“We envision a kind of dilute acid pretreatment as a baseline to make sugar more available,” Krueger said. “Other chemical or mechanical treatments may also need to be considered, and then we plan to use enzymatic hydrolysis to make the sugars fermentable.”

Simply put, Krueger and his colleagues at NREL plan to use mild acids or heat to treat algae and wood waste shipped from Puerto Rico. A cocktail of carefully selected enzymes is used to digest the resulting pulp into a foamy mixture, separating the liquid from the solids that settle to the bottom.

The sweet liquid “hydrolyzate” is easily fermented into ethanol. The technology already exists to upgrade to a sustainable aviation fuel that is chemically identical to traditional jet fuel but can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90%.

And what about the solids left behind? Although it may be difficult to convert into liquid fuel, it may be the perfect material for making batteries for electric cars.

Large pelagic Sargassum brown algae seaweed deposited on a sandy beach.  ” I am attaching the second photo. Alternative text:

New supply of graphite, an important battery material

Graphite, a soft crystalline carbon often used in pencils, is the main component of battery negative electrodes and accounts for up to 30% of a lithium-ion battery’s mass. Demand for critical battery materials is expected to increase more than ninefold by 2030, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and the industry is seeking new domestic sources of supply.

“Most of the graphite currently produced is mined at less than 95% purity, but graphite for lithium-ion batteries must be at least 99.9% pure,” Krueger explained. “Finally, 4% to 5% purity is disproportionately expensive, but we believe that with our graphitization technology we can economically produce graphite of that purity.”

To validate the analysis, NREL plans to ship solids from the lab-scale process to researchers at North Carolina State University. The researchers therefore “graphitize” the solid at high heat in the presence of an iron catalyst, binding the carbon in the solid in a crystalline structure.

Preliminary tests show that the resulting biographite has comparable electrical performance to conventional anodes in several respects, including reversible capacity. Still, the researchers caution that improvements will be needed at the core of the team’s research and development priorities.

How to build a resilient Caribbean bioeconomy?

The global energy potential of Caribbean seaweed and wood waste is undeniable. Up to 1.24 million dry tons of sargassum can be harvested annually near populated coastlines. NREL collaborator Fearless Fund has developed a new process for harvesting biomass at sea to ensure high-quality biomass and protect coastal environments.

When mixed with 75% wood waste, the resource could yield up to 78 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel each year. A commercialized process could produce an estimated 61,000 tons of graphite per year, representing 3.4% of the world’s artificial graphite production.

The potential for a global clean energy transition is clear. But what does this Caribbean industry mean for local communities whose beaches are flooded with seaweed and whose homes are damaged by hurricanes?

“We’re talking about mitigating waste flows in coastal areas, creating new jobs, and helping Puerto Rico in particular achieve its goals of energy independence,” Krueger said.

To quantify benefits and outcomes, the University of Puerto Rico will conduct a site study for potential biorefinery facilities in Puerto Rico. Their recommendations center on community-level impacts such as odor, noise, increased traffic, educational opportunities, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

For example, the team aims to provide hands-on learning to local students in both Puerto Rico and the continental United States by recruiting student researchers from underserved communities. Ultimately, long-term commercial success may depend as much on a diverse and well-trained next generation of bioenergy leaders as on the technological readiness of the process.

But at a more fundamental level, the findings could be informative about the potential of applied science to help communities respond and even thrive despite the challenges of future climate change. There is sex.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Bioenergy Technology.. Learn more about NREL bioenergy, batteryand sustainable aviation the study.

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