Adam St. Gelais, project manager for a University of New England seaweed grant, is holding a piece of kelp. COURTESY PHOTO/University of New England

Adam St. Gelais, project manager for a University of New England seaweed grant, is holding a piece of kelp. COURTESY PHOTO/University of New England

BIDDEFORD — People have been using seaweed as a food source for many years, but more recently seaweed, or macroalgae, is being used as feedstock for animals, and for fuel and chemical feedstock.

With the potential of using seaweed as fuel and other products, the U.S. Department of Energy through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy awarded $22 million in grants to 18 projects around the country that aim to accelerate the production of macroalgae.

Among those receiving funds is the the University of New England, which received a $1.3 million three-year research grant.

UNE and the other DOE awardees are part of a new program called Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources, known as MARINER. Through MARINER,  the U.S. plans to become a leading producer of seaweed, to help improve the country’s energy security and economic competitiveness. The main advantage of macroalgae is that it can be used for fuel and a host of commercial products without competing with food crops for land and water.

“From Alaska to the Gulf Coast, the United States has offshore resources capable of producing enough seaweed to handle as much as 10 percent of our demand for transportation fuel,” said ARPA-E Acting Director Eric Rohlfing. “By focusing on the technological challenges to growing and harvesting macroalgae efficiently and cost-effectively, MARINER project teams are building the tools we need to fully put this resource to work contributing to our energy future.”

UNE officials said in a press release that are excited about receiving the grant.

“This award will support UNE’s network of eager, young scientists and entrepreneurs in all of our marine programs,” said UNE President James Herbert, Ph.D. “With the help of this funding from the Department of Energy, our students will be part of a movement to pioneer the next generation of marine products.” 

The UNE team will develop a 3D modeling tool to simulate hydrodynamic-induced mechanical stresses that seaweed farms face in the open ocean. Team members will focus on predictive modeling to determine the structural performance of new and existing farm designs in the Gulf of Maine. Their model will be capable of simulating hectare-sized farms, in much smaller sizes which would speed up the engineering, testing and permitting process for new, large scale, seaweed farming systems. UNE already has a small experimental seaweed farm off Wood Island. The team will create a larger farm — four acres — in Saco Bay for research purposes. 

“With this grant, UNE will become a center of expertise, practice, and partnerships for developing Maine’s seaweed and sea vegetable economy offshore,” said Professor Barry Costa-Pierce, Ph.D., director of UNE’s Center for Excellence in the Marine Sciences. “DOE’s investment in UNE will support partnerships with researchers and businesses in nations throughout the Atlantic Ocean, developing Maine as a global leader in research and development in aquaculture, especially in the expanding seaweed bioproducts and food economies.” 

Because large-scale macroalgae fuel production remains an extremely ambitious prospect, overcoming the early-stage R&D challenges presented by MARINER requires cross-disciplinary collaboration, according to the DOE. ARPA-E project teams are based on partnerships to encourage sharing new ideas and creating innovations.

UNE is partnering with Professor David Fredriksson, Ph.D., of the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, who is a co-principal investigator on the grant, as well as scientists Andrew Drach, Ph.D., of the Callentis Consulting Group in Austin, Texas, and Tobias Dewhurst, Ph.D., of Maine Marine Composites in Portland. Adam St. Gelais of UNE will serve as project manager. Over the past three years, UNE and the U.S. Naval Academy have built a close research relationship under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, and this award is a result of that partnership.

— Associate Editor Dina Mendros can be reached at 282-1535, ext. 324, or [email protected]

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