Tunicate Marine Animal Could Be Next Biofuel
March 25, 2013

One Marine Animal Could Be Next Biofuel

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Scientists are looking to the ocean for the next big thing in renewable sources of biofuel for your eco-car.

Five researchers at the University of Bergen (UiB) and Uni Research say they found the marine animal tunicate could be used as a renewable source of biofuel. These marine animals serve as bacteria eaters and as a foodstuff in Korea and Japan right now, but the cellulose, the protein and the Omega-3 fatty acids in tunicate are the cause for its many uses.

"Its mantle consists of cellulose, which is a collection of sugars. When cellulose is cleaved, one can obtain ethanol. And ethanol can be used for biofuel in cars. The animal´s body consists of large amounts of protein and Omega-3. This can be used for fish feed," says Professor Eric Thompson at UiB´s Department of Biology.

The researchers say they have already acquired a patent for biofuel and have a patent application pending for the cultivation of tunicate as fish feed.

Dr. Sc. Christofer Troedsson of Uni Research´s Molecular Ecology Group and head of the research at UiB´s Marine Development Biology and the tunicate research project said the bioethanol used today is unsustainable, as it comes from foods already used for human consumption.

"That is why there has been a move towards using cellulose from the timber industry to produce bioethanol," Troedsson said. "However, it is quite complicated to break down the cellulose in trees and convert it into ethanol. This is because the wood contains a substance called lignin, which is hard to separate from the cellulose. Tunicates contain no lignin. Their cellulose is also low in crystals and is more efficiently converted into ethanol."

He said using tunicate rather than trees is more environmentally friendly because it does not occupy large tracts of land that could be used for other purposes.

Tunicate, specifically the subspecies ascidiaces, is not in the food chain, so there are no creatures dependent on it to survive. They also grow quickly and are found in all oceans.

"We have spent years to arrive at these findings, so the prize is a nice recognition. Now we look forward to working on commercializing the results," says Thompson.

Another ocean dweller scientists are looking at for a source of biofuel is algae. Last November, engineers from the University of Michigan said they "pressure cooked" algae for as little as a minute and transformed 65 percent of the green slime into biocrude, a process that typically takes Mother Nature millions of years. Researchers believe an area of algae the size of New Mexico could provide enough oil to match current US petroleum consumption.