One of the latest ideas for creating sustainable fuels that don't compete with food crops is making feedstocks from seaweed, such as this red seaweed (Plocamium sp.). (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Derek Keats)
I hear you, William. The "best technological choice", of course, can look different depending on which lens we are looking through. The economics that drive manufacturing are the reasons behind looking first for a drop-in replacement, not looking first for the "best" technology from some other standpoint, such as least harm to the environment, easiest to produce, easiest/simplest to distribute, or some other factor.
Isn't it unfortunate when the best choice is passed by because of expediency or external influence, with logic and insight being ignored. WE might be better off if some of that corn ethanol were provided as a beverage, to discourage folks from driving. That would indeed reduce automotive emissions pollution. (I am not seriously suggesting this as an alternative, but as another point of view).
Before the corn lobby ever heard of alternative fuels, we had a focus on ethanol because researchers were looking for what appeared to be the fastest, more-likely to-be-a-drop-in replacement for gasoline. By the time it became apparent that ethanol might not be the best way to go--whether made from corn, kudzu, seaweed or sugar cane trash--an entire industry had been created, and momentum had become established, no doubt helped by the corn lobby.
One question: Why convert anything into ethyl alcohol when there are a whole lot of better alternatives? By better I mean more energy per unit of weight, and also less corrosive. We have so much ethanol because the corn farmers lobbied for it, NOT because it was a good choice. We should all remember that fact. How about something more like bio-diesel fuel? Just rearrange those carbon-hydrogen bonds and we are there. No, it is not easy and some things that do work may not be practical. That is a challenge.
Jack, the US research team is focused on conversion technology, whereas the Indian team intends to also intensively farm seaweed. Seaweed cultivation methods already exist: the Indian team wants to improve them, as we state in the article.
Ann, can you tell if the idea is to harvest naturally occuring seaweed or is it to create "sea farms" at some location in the ocean? If it's the latter, I can imagine that we will be running into the same problems with do with land base development. There will be years of environment impact studies before they could even start one that would produce a usuable level of anything.
@naperlou - we've already seen that situation here in the Midwest where the rates keep going up due to reduced usage. The worst part about that is the electric company then sticks a note in your bill saying, in essence, "your rates are going up, if you think you pay too much, here's are some things you can do to decrease your usage...". So then they can raise rates again. At the end of the day you are in a worse situation than you were when you started. You are having to deal with crummy light bulbs, less comfortable air, decreased capabilities, but still paying the same (or more) than you were before all this started.
Greg, thanks for your input. We report on both new technologies that are already ready to go, and on stuff like this that is just out of the lab and taking a different approach from what's already been done. I agree with you on experimentation--that's the essence of science and invention, and inherent in the creative process.
I agree that the potential for this technique appears limited right now and will probably not make a significant dent in the energy demands of the world. However, I applaud the idea of thinking outside the box and trying this new approach. Sometimes experimentation with different ideas can lead to another totally new idea (which would not have otherwise been thought of).
On the other hand, were there any unintended effects with this process? (i.e. will growing too much of this type of seaweed in one location disturb the ecosystem and cause some unanticipated environmental damage?). It would be good to study what other effects this process would have on the ecosystem too.
NIST's new five-year strategic plan for its Material Measurement Laboratory lists additive manufacturing materials development as one of the main areas it will support by developing measurements, data, techniques, and models.
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