MacroBioCrude: Developing an Integrated Supply and Processing Pipeline for the Sustained Production of Ensiled Macroalgae-derived Hydrocarbon Fuels

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Chemistry


Research challenge: Identify and demonstrate a robust and economic route for sustainably manufacturing drop-in replacement transport fuels (to use as diesel and aviation kerosene). Using innovative sources of sustainable biomass ensures continuity of fuel supply past peak oil and meets increasing fuel demands. Current 1st-generation technologies have reached the limits of available biomass feedstocks without compromising food supply/security. Seaweed (macroalgae) is a viable alternative source, but its use requires investigation, development and commercialization to provide a non-seasonal supply chain, to tackle its high water content and provide chemical processes for converting to transport fuels.

Timeliness/UK Importance: The EU and UK government have set strict targets on greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation requires incorporation of 10% renewables into the supply chain by 2020. Such targets, coupled with increasing demand for dwindling oil reserves, especially for aviation and goods vehicles, make it vital in the short-/medium-term to develop a sustainable supply of diverse renewable feedstocks (current UK transport fuels use=54000 M litres pa: aviation fuel=24%, diesel=39%; 2% growth pa). Establishing routes to produce environmentally and economically sustainable transport fuels will have a direct (chemicals, fuels sectors) and an indirect (transport, manufactured goods' distribution) impact on ensuring the future of UK manufacturing industries.

Project aims: To develop and evaluate an integrated supply and processing strategy for sustained production of ensiled MA-derived fuel-spec. hydrocarbons.

Innovative Solution: For the first time conventional grassland ensilage methods will be used to reliably preserve MA biomass for >12 months. This MA silage will then be used as an intermediate energy carrier for production of syngas/bio-crude oil. Both hypotheses are entirely new and work of this type has not been conducted anywhere outside of the studies made by Durham/CPI/Silage Solutions. Significantly, dewatering and demineralisation are inherent features of ensiling, two factors crucial in facilitating post-gasification catalytic upgrading. The work will result in a significant step-change in the production pipeline of natural stock/cultivated MA, enabling systems integration by providing a sustained source of MA biomass of consistent chemical composition as a commodity feedstock for fuel production. Ultimately, this project will assist take-off of a large bio-fuels industry that avoids food/fuel competition for land use, does not require fresh water and makes MA biomass an affordable, preferred addition to land-based energy crops.

Planned Impact

1) Beneficiaries of the research
The interdisciplinary nature of the research and its systems approach necessitates close interaction with a wide range of industry partners/consultants, industry associations, academics, and public bodies. Consequently the project's research and outcomes will be quickly and effectively transmitted to a broad range of beneficiaries:
a) Commercial private sector beneficiaries
UK and multinational fuel manufacturers; and catalysis and chemical process industries (areas especially important regionally, eg. North East/Teesside).
UK/global macroalgae producers.
Transportation/manufacturing industries.
UK farming, aquaculture, fisheries and marine sectors.
Companies with interests in near-coastal and off-shore engineering/construction.
b) Policy-makers and governmental beneficiaries
UK Government; Shetland Isles council.
c) Public sector beneficiaries
The Crown Estate.
Academic research in: macroalgae growth/harvesting; gasification; gas clean-up; FTS.
BBSRC: complementing its Industrial Biotechnology strategic research priority
d) Beneficiaries from the wider public
Environmental protection/sustainable use of natural resources.
Public awareness.

2) How will they benefit from this research?
The UK commodity chemicals industry contributes significantly (annual turnover £18.4bn) to the UK's economy. This project will impact directly here providing new markets for catalysts/process technologies associated with biomass gasification for UK companies. Regeneration/expansion of industries working in seaweed growth, harvest and utilisation (eg. in the Shetlands) will be enabled, benefiting from the new seaweed-to-fuels market and from benefits in terms of preservation, storage and transportation of seaweed from the novel ensiling method, applicable to existing uses: manufacture of food supplements, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Each of these areas potentially spans UK and worldwide markets. A general impact will be the contribution to the manufacture of high energy density HGV/aviation fuels in a sustainable fashion from a readily renewable source of biomass, whose growth does not compete with food production; ensuring supplies of these fuels supports many areas of the manufacturing industries, supply chains, and aspects of daily life in the medium- to long-term. Working closely with its partner CPI (part of The High Value Manufacturing Catapult) will provide a mechanism for direct involvement in setting UK and EU strategy, especially for development of sustainable manufacturing technologies/processes.
The project will (medium-/long-term) deliver benefits in terms of public health and well-being as a result of greater (long-term) environmental protection, by manufacturing key fuels from rapidly growing (and hence CO2-absorbing) biomass, and through the well-documented bioremediation potential of seaweed farms (Aquaculture 2006, 252, 264). It is envisaged that the mineral-rich gasification residues will give real benefits as soil improvers and as fertilisers for better growth of food crops worldwide. Through diverse outreach activities, the consortium will help raise public awareness of issues surrounding the development and use of biomass-derived fuels.
In addition to project-specific scientific skills, staff will acquire a range of transferable skills, in particular becoming conversant with working in a multidisciplinary environment. Embedded links with industry partners will provide insight and experience of academic/industry partnerships and business drivers for R&D; where appropriate secondments to industry will be made.The DU PhD student will complete the Chemistry Department's Graduate Skills Portfolio (a tailored programme of scientific/general courses in research skills, report writing, communication skills, teaching, mentoring).
Together this research will help ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of the development of future environmentally friendly technologies.


10 25 50
Description Developed an understanding of the way in which Macro-algae (seaweed) can be preserved using common-place agricultural methods such as ensiling. The preserved material can then be used as an energy vector between cultured macro-algae and later use of the biomass as a source of chemicals.

Additionally, developing methods for the thermal conversion of the raw and preserved biomass to chemicals - work that is currently on-going. This is being linked (in parallel) to catalytic methods for upgrading of the directly obtained thermolysis products to other added-value chemicals; in particular the group are developing FT catalytic technologies.

Established how different seaweed species can be preserved and what (if any) differences there are between species. In turn, the preserved species have been gasified and the resulting gas, liquids, and solids analysed and attempts made to correlate differences in behaviour with both species of seaweed and preservation method/time.

These thermal processing methods have significant wider applicability. One particularly important area is in the development of new methods for plastic and waste recycling - including materials such as waste tyres.
Exploitation Route Fundamental underpinning science as delivered in papers and at academic meetings; preservation technologies can be used to preserve/store/transport non-conventional biomass to end users. The chemicals being targeted can be used as contributions to current liquid transport fuels as alternatives to fossil-derived materials.
Potential impacts on use of farming seaweed for chemicals, nutraceuticals, fuels manufacture.

It is likely that the methods developed as part of MacroBioCrude will feed into methods for catalytic pyrolysis of plastic waste.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Creative Economy,Energy,Environment,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Transport

Description A series of stakeholder engagement meetings have been held over the last year (findings currently being collated, assessed and interpreted) looking at how members of the general public perceive the use of biofuels in general and, more specifically the public's opinion concerning the large scale growth of seaweed and its subsequent use in manufacturing fuels (and chemicals). Invited to join Innovate UK Catalysis Capability (Industrial and Academic) Review team (2019 - 2020) - looking at how catalysis, catalytic pyrolysis, and other thermochemical methods can be used in other areas such as waste plastic to chemicals conversion and a scoping study to see how the UK's capability in the area of mid-level TRL research in Catalysis compares with that in the EU.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Energy,Environment,Transport
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Title Development of lab micro-scale steam gasification unit 
Description In collaboration with the instrument manufacturer and distributor the Durham team have established modifications to an off-the-shelf lab pyrolysis instrument to enable it to undertake micro-scale steam gasification; this is a fundamental aspect of the science being undertaken in this project, namely gasification of ensiled seaweed 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact To date, none, but will allow samples of preserved/ensiled biomass to be screened for their steam gasification behaviour rapidly 
Title Thermo-catalytic Reforming (TCR®) of Seaweed 
Description Method of thermolysis and analysis of biomass 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Provides unique data on the thermochemical outcomes of gasification of preserved seaweed samples as a function of species and of treatment 
Title Thermo-chemical conversion of seaweed via TCR® Seaweed pellets from three sets of samples (early, mid, late) 
Description Thermo-chemical conversion of seaweed via TCR® Seaweed pellets from three sets of samples (early, mid, late) 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Assessing the potential of TCR-type gasification of ensiled seaweeds 
Description Seaweed gasification trials with Fraunhofer UMSICHT, Institute Branch Sulzbach-Rosenberg, Germany 
Organisation Fraunhofer Society
Department Fraunhofer UMSICHT Institute Branch Sulzbach-Rosenberg
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Supply of ensiled and preserved seaweed for gasification
Collaborator Contribution Gasification and associated analyses of the variously-treated seaweed samples
Impact Report on gasification trial and associated analyses received (Thermo-chemical conversion of seaweed via TCR® Seaweed pellets from three sets of samples (early, mid, late)). The data are currently being drafted into a manuscript.
Start Year 2016
Description Susteen Technologies - Gasification Trial 
Organisation Susteen Technologies UK Ltd
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Provision of samples of ensiled seaweed for gasification. Analysis of resulting data
Collaborator Contribution Undertaking the gasification trial and expert interpretation of data
Impact This will deliver data on the ensiled materials; the trial is currently underway.
Start Year 2017
Description Invited member of Innovate UK Catalysis Capability (Industrial and Academic) Review team (2019 - 2020) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Part of a team of 8 academics/industrials accompanied by 3 employees of CI-KTN as part of an Innovate UK review of catalysis capability in the UK and how this compares with industrial-academic partnerships in Europe including Germany (CaRLa - Heidelberg) and Finland (VTT).
Individual visit reports made and will input to final coordinated report to Innovate UK later in 2020.

As a part of this role, additionally took part in a meeting in London (March 2020) about plastics recycling and the role of catalysis and pyrolysis - techniques developed during the MacroBioCrude project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Stakeholder meetings: a seaweed to fuels pipeline 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact In total there were 19 stakeholder interviews conducted between January and October of 2015. The stakeholders were identified using a mixture of literature and internet searchers as well as the snowballing technique. Stakeholder were then chosen based on their relevance to the development of seaweed biofuels within the UK, drawing from principles of stakeholder theory.
Stakeholder group Respondent Description
Government/Regulators/Environmental Agencies A Policy expert
B Fisherman's Association
Beach/Land owners/ Offshore wind C Oyster farmer/ seabed owner
D Major off-shore wind generator
Seaweed Industry / Fishing Industry E Aquaculture
F Seaweed wild harvest
G Fin-fish Aquaculture
H Seaweed cultivation and harvest
Silage experts I Silage construction
Biofuel producers J Major EU biofuel producer
Fuel distributors/forecourts K Aviation biofuel distribution
L UK International Airport
End Users M British Airline
N UK International Airport
Consultancy and Academia O Seaweed expert (food)
P Seaweed expert (academia)
Q Algae Academic
R Algae Academic
Venture Capital S British Private Equity
This study has revealed that seaweed biofuels are technically feasible within the UK. The technological barriers associated with seaweed cultivation and harvesting are largely overstated in the literature. Mechanised systems of cultivation and harvesting have been developed by specialised seaweed cultivation companies and there remains an open attitude to licence the technology in the future. The sector is being driven principally by the high-value markets for seaweed including animal feed, human food, pharmaceuticals and specialised chemicals. Biofuels are a marginal market for seaweed at the current time and it us suggested that seaweed based biofuels, using dedicated seaweed farms, is more than 10 years from commercial reality.
The largest barriers for technological development are centred on high cost of production for the raw biomass, high opportunity costs from competing markets, and uncertainty surrounding the biofuel production process. Gasification and F-T will not be viable within the next 10 years due to the combined effects of a lack of biofuel policy support, low oil prices and high opportunity costs incurred from competing biomass markets. The UK gasification business models are focused on electricity production due to the negative feed-stock costs from municipal wastes and the availability of UK feed-in tariffs.
Seaweed will most likely be sold into a growing high-value market for food, pharmaceuticals and animal feeds in the UK. If this market is targeted on a large scale, there is reasonable scope to use waste residues to make biofuels. However, gasification is not considered a favourable conversion technology due to the high energy inputs inherent to this conversion pathway.
UK renewable energy policy for biofuel technology is in state of retrenchment and uncertainty whereas electrical production from gasification is seen as one of the most stable. Private investment into biofuel production technologies, especially those with novelty, has become extremely challenging within the UK because of the lack of long-term stable biofuel policy outlook.
The growth of the seaweed industry also suffers from a lack of reliable data and studies looking at the environmental impact of large scale mono-culture sites. This is slowing down legislative approval for larger scale demonstration sites and in turn increasing technological risk and lowering the chances of private investment.
In terms of public perceptions, seaweed biofuels were largely viewed in a positive light owing the perceived energy security benefits for the UK. The initial development of seaweed cultivation sites will likely face some backlash from local communities, especially those in virgin coastal areas. However, the visual impact is perhaps marginal compared to the wider environmental concerns that the public have for large-scale seaweed cultivation. The principal reason for their concern centres on the fact that there is a lack of environmental assessment data available to them. The public need more information about seaweed biofuel technology including the likely sizes and location of the seaweed farms as well as the environmental impacts of the technology on local wild-life.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015