Energy input, carbon intensity, and cost for ethanol produced from brown seaweed




Philippsen, Aaron

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Brown macroalgae or brown seaweed is a promising source of ethanol that may avoid the challenges of arable land use, water use, lignin content, and the food vs. fuel debate associated with first generation and cellulosic ethanol sources; however, this promise is challenged by seaweed’s high water content, high ash content, and natural composition fluctuations. Notably, lifecycle studies of seaweed ethanol are lacking in the literature. To address this gap, a well-to-wheel model of ethanol production from farmed brown seaweed was constructed and applied to the case of Saccharina latissima farming in British Columbia (BC), Canada, to determine energy return on energy invested (EROI), carbon intensity (CI), and near shore seaweed farming production potential for seaweed ethanol and to examine the production cost of seaweed ethanol. Seaweed farming and ethanol production were modeled based on current BC farming methods and the dry grind corn ethanol production process; animal feed was included as an ethanol co-product, and co-product credits were considered. A seaweed ethanol yield calculation tool that accounts for seaweed composition was proposed, and a sensitivity study was done to examine case study data assumptions. In the case study, seaweed ethanol had lower CI than sugarcane, wheat, and corn ethanol at 10.1 gCO2e/MJ, and it had an EROI comparable to corn ethanol at 1.78. Seaweed ethanol was potentially profitable due to significant revenue from animal feed sales; however, the market for seaweed animal feed was limited by the feed’s high sodium content. Near shore seaweed farming could meet the current demand for ethanol in BC, but world near shore ethanol potential is likely an order of magnitude lower than world ethanol production and two orders of magnitude lower than world gasoline production. Composition variation and a limited harvest season make solar thermal or geothermal seaweed drying and storage necessary for ethanol production in BC. Varying seaweed composition, solar thermal drying performance, co-product credits, the type of animal feed produced, transport distances, and seaweed farming performance in the sensitivity study gave an EROI of over 200 and a CI of -42 gCO2e/MJ in the best case and an EROI of 0.64 and CI of 33 gCO2e/MJ in the worst case. Co-product credits and the type of animal feed produced had the most significant effect overall, and the worst cases of seaweed composition and solar thermal seaweed drying system performance resulted in EROI of 0.64 and 1.0 respectively. Brown seaweed is concluded to be a potentially profitable source of ethanol with climate benefits that surpass current ethanol sources; however, additional research into seaweed animal feed value, co-product credits, large scale seaweed conversion, and the feasibility of solar thermal or geothermal seaweed drying is required to confirm this conclusion.



biomass, brown algae, brown macroalgae, brown seaweed, carbon intensity, CI, cost, energy return on energy invested, EROEI, EROI, bioenergy, bioethanol, energy, farming, GHG emissions, kelp, lifecycle analysis, well-to-wheel