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Marine Biomass Energy
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Author: Peter Neushul, Ph.D., University of California. During the energy crisis of the 1970's, the U.S. government and private agencies began funding research on alternative fuel resources. Among the projects was a $20 million dollar effort to develop a large Ocean Food and Energy Farm (OFEF) as a source of biomass for generating natural gas and other products. Research began in 1972 and continued until 1986 when funding ended abruptly. The termination of the biomass program coincided with the end of U.S. goverment and corporate interest in alternate energy resources. Yet, with continuing depletion of fossil fuels and the added concerns about carbon dioxide and global warming, marine biomass remains a potentially limitless alternative to current finite resources. Moreover, unlike fossil fuels, marine biomass removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans, converting it, via photosynthesis, into chemical energy. To date, no other countries have sought to farm marine algae as a source of natural gas. China, Japan, and the Philippines have large marine algae farms, but harvest the raw material for use as food and for production of algin, agar, and carrageenan.
Inspiration for the U.S. marine biomass project came from Howard Wilcox, a physicist at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) at China Lake, CA. A strong advocate of solar energy, Wilcox sought new methods for utilizing this unlimited resource. Since the majority of sunlight falls upon the ocean, Wilcox saw marine farming as a way to capture vast quantities of solar energy. Wilcox suggested that large open-ocean marine farms planted with California giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) could provide all the energy needs of the United States. His calculations were based on solar energy reaching an area measuring 300 miles on a side and the fraction of that energy is photosynthetically fixed into marine biomass. Wilcox distinguished himself as a key contributor to the development of "Sidewinder" missiles for the U.S. Navy. In order to pursue his farming concept, Wilcox obtained $2 million in funds from the American Gas Association, the U.S. Navy, and the Department of Energy, to install a pilot farm. Wilcox invited Wheeler J. North, a marine biologist and kelp expert at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, to join the biomass project. North's first impression was that oceanic farming was "a pretty wild concept," but agreed that there was a strong possibility that it could be accomplished.
How it works
In 1974, three open ocean farms were installed, as a test of Wilcox's "artifical bottom" theory. The first was moored forty feet below the surface, off the northwest tip of San Clemente Island, CA. This was a 300,000 square-foot (about seven acres) raft made of polypropylene ropes spaced ten feet apart, and cross-linked every fifty feet. The farm was anchored using stainless steel cables and concrete blocks. Floats were attached at intersections. The grid was planted with 150 giant kelp plants (Macrocystis pyrifera) from nearby kelp beds. In nature, these plants are anchored to the bottom by holdfasts that resemble a cone-shaped collection of roots, but do not take in nutrients or water as terrestrial plant do. For these ocean farms, the holdfasts were attached to the grid by sewing their claw-like tendrils onto the mesh, a technique developed by North during his work on kelp bed reforestation for the California Department of Fish and Game. Later, two smaller farms were installed, one located near Corona Del Mar, and the other off Catalina Island.   See More...
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