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Going Up— A “Kelp Elevator” on Catalina Island Could Produce Clean Energy

CATALINA ISLAND— The United States needs billions of tons of biomass annually for biofuel. Biomass, in the context of energy production, is matter from recently living organisms that are used for bioenergy production, and biofuel is a fuel that is produced over a short period from biomass rather than by the prolonged natural processes involved in the formation of fossil fuels, such as oil.


While corn, soybeans, and other crops are the most common source, a new theory has entered the chat and is being tested off Catalina Island. 


Diane Y Kim, the associated director of special projects at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, believes a breakthrough has been made. In 2019, Marine Biology, Inc. and USC researchers began testing the idea of harvesting kelp in the open ocean as a new biofuel source.  


Kelp is one of the fastest-growing plants. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in ideal conditions, kelp can grow up to 18 inches per day, and in stark contrast to the colorful and slow-growing corals, the giant kelp canopies tower above the ocean floor. The investigation is being led by the theory that kelp is potentially perfect for making bioethanol, but it grows in sunlight-soaked water. Surface water in the open ocean lacks nutrients compared to the concentration of nutrients in deeper waters. The process of utilizing both depths of water is now called the “kelp elevator.”


A test buoy and a winch have been placed off the coast of Catalina Island, where USC biologists have attached kelp to an underwater boom. For 104 days, the contraption let the kelp bathe on the water’s surface during the day to absorb sunlight and was drawn into deep nutrient-rich depths at night. 


A 2019 study found that the kelp not only survived in the lower depths but also grew four times faster once it returned to the surface. 


A plan is being developed to build an ocean farm using solar-powered drone submarines to harvest the kelp four times a year without the standard farming requirements of land, fresh water, fertilizers, and pesticides. This process could mean millions of tons of biomass replacing liquid fossil fuels. 


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