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Dumas Bay seaweed could become biofuel

Blue Marble Energy employee Devin Elliot, in the wet suit, prepares to suck seaweed out of Dumas Bay on Wednesday near Dumas Bay Park. The cone-shaped metal piece serves as the head of a vacuum (the white hose). Wednesday’s seaweed harvesting was a practice run for the company.  - Jacinda Howard/The Mirror
Blue Marble Energy employee Devin Elliot, in the wet suit, prepares to suck seaweed out of Dumas Bay on Wednesday near Dumas Bay Park. The cone-shaped metal piece serves as the head of a vacuum (the white hose). Wednesday’s seaweed harvesting was a practice run for the company.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard/The Mirror

Unwanted Dumas Bay seaweed could have a cutting-edge future as a biofuel.

Blue Marble Energy — a Seattle company hired by the Department of Ecology — took to the bay Sept. 24 near Dumas Bay Park in a seaweed clean-up practice run. The decomposing algae has been the source of concern since 2006, due to the noxious smell it releases when the plant’s layers break apart.

The growth has not become smelly enough to call for removal this year, but the DOE and Blue Marble wanted to work out kinks in a fairly new process before the real deal takes place sometime in the undetermined future.

In prior years and locations, such as Seattle’s Fauntleroy Cove, the seaweed was gathered and dragged farther out to sea for disposal. The DOE has found this was not an effective solution to the overbloom of sea growth. The seaweed in these instances continued to decompose and interfere with biological materials, DOE spokesman Larry Altose said.

In Federal Way, Blue Marble plans to rid the beach of rotting seaweed in a more comprehensive manner. As practiced, when the removal does take place, the company plans to use a small skiff and a vacuum-like machine to suck up the floating seaweed at high tide. The gooey material will then flow to a large bag attached to the vacuum hose.

On Wednesday, the removal crew had a few troubles getting the vacuum’s pump to work consistently and eventually had to switch pumps. Setting up took a while, but the process went mostly as planned.

A Blue Marble employee jumped into the bay donning a wet suit. Holding the vacuum hose, with a metal cone-shaped head, he sucked the seaweed off the water’s surface. Blue Marble CEO Kelly Ogilvie stood in the rain watching from the beach. A small crowd joined him. As part of the DOE and Blue Marble’s contract deal, the company gets to keep the algae it harvests. Ogilvie is excited about this.

Blue Marble has big plans for the seaweed, Altose said.

The company will spend $300 per ton on a process that mimics that of a cow’s stomach to turn the growth into biofuels, Ogilvie said. He would like to see the seaweed transformed into oil, food and energy products, he said. Other countries are researching their algae blooms, looking for ways to make them more than a slimy, smelly, green bother. Ogilvie just returned from France, where he witnessed teams excavating the seaweed from the beach using trucks and tractors.

“This stuff is amazing,” Ogilvie said. “It’s a nuisance, but it can be turned into something else.”

In the United States, careful attention must be paid to not disturbing the sea life. The skiff is able to get within a few feet of the shore to do its work without disturbing the beach. Additionally, all seaweed must be removed as it floats in the water. Nothing can be peeled off the beach, Altose said. DOE and Blue Marble must also follow guidelines for how much of the seaweed blooms can be harvested.

“If you remove too much material, it’s bad for the beach environment,” Altose said.

Allowing Blue Marble to keep the seaweed is beneficial to the city. As recently as summer 2007, staff thought the city would have to pay to dispose of the seaweed in landfills. Currently, an estimated five to eight tons are present in the bay and on the beach.

The removal process is an effort happening in Federal Way and Seattle, managed by DOE and conducted by Blue Marble. DOE agreed to invest $50,000 in the clean-up efforts earlier this year. If necessary, Federal Way will cover costs accrued here — up to $50,000 from the City Manager Contingency Fund — that exceed this amount, according to an August interlocal agreement.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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