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Scientists develop method for producing biofuel from seawater

23/08/2018
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Bioethanol is one of a number of renewable energy sources that are being eagerly developed by scientists as a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels. However, the production of bioethanol has traditionally relied on large volumes of freshwater- a resource whose scarcity is becoming an increasing concern globally. But now scientists from the University of Nottingham have found a way of dodging this issue, by using seawater to produce bioethanol instead…
The collection of seawater samples for the new method of bioethanol production.
(Collecting seawater samples. Image via Dr Abdelrahman Zaky).

Bioethanol has been considered one of the best fuel alternatives because it is a liquid fuel with similar characteristics to petrol and governments around the world are looking to increase its production.

However, water is a key element in the fermentation process in the production of bioethanol, which is typically derived from maize or sugar cane. Currently it has an extremely high-water footprint with an estimated 1,388 to 9,812 litres of freshwater consumed for every litre of bioethanol produced.

If bioethanol production is to increase to the levels required to replace fossil fuels, then something needs to be done to reduce the fuel’s water footprint. Enter the University of Nottingham.

“With an ever-growing population and demand for biofuels and other bio-based produces, there are concerns over the use of the limited freshwater and food crop resources for non-nutritional activities. Also, freshwater has a high price tag in countries where it is available, pushing up the price of production,” says Dr Abdelrahman Zaky, a microbiologist in the School of Biosciences, who led the study.

The study involved taking seawater from the Lincolnshire coast and a special strain of marine yeast samples (Saccharomyces cerevisiae AZ65 and yeast extract peptone dextrose (YPD)) from various locations in the UK, US and Egypt. These were then put through a special fermentation process using 15-L bioreactors which produced 93.50g/L ethanol with a yield of 83.33%. To quote the study, ‘These results demonstrated that seawater can substitute freshwater for bioethanol production without compromising production efficiency. Results also revealed that marine yeast is a potential candidate for use in the bioethanol industry especially when using seawater or high salt-based fermentation media.”

So, could this new breakthrough unleash the true potential of bioethanol as an alternative fuel source?

Well, it certainly makes bioethanol a more viable proposition according to Dr Zaky:

“The main purpose of marine fermentation is to introduce an alternative source of water and biomass for industrial biotechnology in order to reduce pressure on use of freshwater and arable land, allowing these resources to be dedicated to production of food and feeds and reducing production costs. Marine fermentation is the approach where seawater, marine biomass and marine microorganisms are used in the fermentation process.”

“Seawater is a freely available and plentiful resource, and contains a spectrum of minerals, some of which have to be added to freshwater. The fermentation process using seawater also produces salt and freshwater as bi-products adding to the economic benefits of the process.”

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Scientists develop method for producing biofuel from seawater - Time to read 3 min
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