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Earth Today | ‘A good, novel approach’

Climate change pro gives thumbs up to seaweed research

Published:Thursday | September 23, 2021 | 12:05 AM
From left: Dr Orville Grey talks shop with Jeffrey Spooner, former head of the Meteorological Service, and Clifford Mahlung, one of Jamaica’s seasoned climate negotiators, at a consultation session in 2015.
From left: Dr Orville Grey talks shop with Jeffrey Spooner, former head of the Meteorological Service, and Clifford Mahlung, one of Jamaica’s seasoned climate negotiators, at a consultation session in 2015.
A snap of the research report.
A snap of the research report.

RECENT research into biomethane from rum distillery waste and sargassum seaweed as an alternative fuel for transportation in Barbados has inspired the interest of another professional from climate change circles.

This is given its promise of an answer to the need for reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transport sector. A sharp decline in greenhouse gas emissions is required if the world is to thwart climate change impacts associated with the continued warming of the planet, such as more extreme weather events and sea-level rise.

“The research into biofuels is not new in the region, but the context to adapt sargassum as part of the mix is a good, novel approach. It provides a free resource, rids the environment of a persistent problem, and, potentially, may reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of the transport sector,” noted Dr Orville Grey, former senior technical officer for adaptation with the Climate Change Division, now with the Green Climate Fund.

The study, done by a team of researchers, concluded that “by relying on experimental evidence, it shows that biomethane emanating from the combination of sargassum seaweed that is found on the seashores of the country with wastewater from rum distillery production can be used to produce an alternative transportation fuel”.

“If implemented successfully, this alternative combustion method can avoid as much as one million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year in the country. These findings have important implications for policymakers,” noted the researchers Legena Henry, Brittney McKenzie, Aria Goodridge, Karyl Pivott, Joshua Austin, Kristen Lynch, Shamika Spencer, Felicia Cox, Nikolai Holder, Renique Murray, Veronica R. Prado, and Pauline Ravillard.

“First, they can contribute to the national objective of becoming fossil fuel free by 2030 and diversifying the energy matrix. Second, this alternative fuel can improve resilience to natural catastrophes, complementing the transition to renewables and diversification of the sector. Third, the impact on the tourism industry is expected to be high and positive, as the sargassum seaweed has been declared a national emergency due to its prevalence on beach tourism spots,” they added.

For Grey, there is no question that there are likely benefits for islands beyond Barbados’ shores – but it will require that they make that determination, and with the benefit of additional research.

“I believe each country will have to assess how best to use this resource ... . For Barbados, based on volume, it may be a good substitute. There will likely be questions on its best use ... feedstock versus raw material to an alternative to fossil fuel,” he told The Gleaner.

“I am curious on how they would project volume over time to include this as a sustainable raw material. While the volume may be high now, I’m not sure of the lasting impact,” Grey added.

Still, he said: “For the Caribbean, diversity in fuels is always a plus. We import fossil fuels in large amounts for the most part, with the exception of a few countries. Any mix will offer us advantages from cushions against market volatility in fossil fuel supplies to reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. It also provides a good opportunity to diversify the economy and provide some buffer.”

“It’s an interesting, long-term proposition. I’m looking forward to the long-term projections and viability,” Grey said further.

The researchers have themselves noted the need for additional research.

“While the sargassum seaweed collection and use seem to be a viable solution to the economic and environmental threats currently faced by Barbados, future research would need to be carried out to analyse the potential costs of seaweed collection and anaerobic digestion, its overall financial suitability when compared to other alternatives, and its complementarity, and most importantly, security of supply throughout the year,’ they said.

“Evaluation of the regulation of the seaweed would be necessary for when it is considered a public good in the context of the circular economy, optimising the use of all related resources in this process,” the researchers added.