UK researchers have developed a technique for making bioethanol from seawater, which they hope will make production of the biofuel cheaper and more environmentally friendly than current methods.

At present, bioethanol production uses very large amounts of freshwater – 1000-10,000 liters water per 1 liter bioethanol. They also require large amounts of plant biomass to produce, which is expensive and takes up land that could be used to grow food.

“There are so many obstacles facing this approach, mainly high cost, energy intensive and low production. Also, this approach…consumes a considerable amount of freshwater for the production of bioethanol,” lead researcher Abdelrahman Zaky, University of Nottingham, told me.

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The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, showed that a special type of marine yeast could be used for producing bioethanol with seawater. The team showed on an experimental scale that this type of fermentation process can be done without loss in productivity compared with current production methods.

Schematic diagram of industrial seawater-based ethanol production (100,000 L plants) The content of this diagram was firstly suggested by Zaky in 2017 1 .

Schematic diagram of industrial seawater-based ethanol production (100,000 L plants)

Using seawater for bioethanol production has been investigated before, but earlier methods required a high-energy consuming, expensive desalination process, because the normal strains of yeast that are used in this process are sensitive to salt.

“This technology is of great importance especially in countries that already suffer water shortage like the middle eastern countries, Australia, parts of India and parts of the USA,” said Zaky.

Zaky also points out that as well as using less energy, and being more economical, the new process he is developing has the potential to produce as much as 7 liters of good quality freshwater per 1 liter of bioethanol as a byproduct.

To address the issue of needing large amounts of arable land to grow the biomass needed to produce bioethanol, the researchers plan to develop their process further to use marine biomass, such as algae, as a substrate.

While this research is still at an early stage, Zaky is keen to reach out to industry for possible partners. “I understand the importance of linking academia with industry in order to achieve practical solutions to the important issues. Energy-Food-Water nexus is definitely one of the most important issues worldwide and I am very much willing to work and collaborate with serious industrial partners to address this.”

Biotech’s such as Spanish AlgaEnergy and US-based Algenol are already working on producing biofuel from marine sources, doubtless an area that will be looking to grow as the need for land for food increases and our reliance on fossil fuels is forced to decrease.  


Images: Shutterstock and A. S. Zaky

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