Researchers fishing for energy sources think sea kelp can help

It grows in the ocean, in long and slippery strips -- a source of food and chemicals for industry, a source of exasperation for swimmers and surfers who tangle with it, and perhaps someday the source of the gas that heats water for your bath.

Under a fledging research project funded by the Gas Research Institute (GRI) and the US Department of Energy, scientists have found that the giant California kelp, which grows up to 100 feet long, may well figure in the nation's energy future as a source of methane gas.

Because the project is still in "very, very preliminary" stages, researchers are hesitant about making long-range predictions. What projections they do cautiously offer indicate it will be the year 2000 before kelp begins to provide even a fraction of the nation's natural gas needs. Natural gas currently accounts for 25 percent of the US energy supply.

Given such caveats, however, the results so far are "very encouraging," says a project director. Despite their conservatism, researchers are enthusiastic about the potential of an energy resource which, unlike crude oil or coal, is renewable.

"Any reasonable person is skeptical, you've got to be," says Michael Neushul, a University of California at Santa Barbara professor involved with the project. "This is not going to be an easy job.

"But can you imagine?" he continues, "a renewable energy source . . . you just say, 'How much gas to you want this year?' and we say, 'OK, how many thousands of acres [of kelp] do we . . . farm?'"

Currently, the project involves a coastal kelp farm of 300 plants (anchored some five miles off the southern California coast and overseen by Professor Neushul), and studies to find the most efficient ways to produce clean-burning methane gas.

Engineering difficulties must be overcome, including how best to anchor the offshore farm, which is buffeted by deep-sea currents and storms, and how to fertilize the plants with essential nutrients.

Despite such problems, the kelp project is "interesting enough and important enough that we are pursuing it," says a spokesman for GRI. It has spent nearly

Those involved with the project note that kelp farming has certain inherent advantages. Ocean kelp farms are hardly in danger of being wiped out by drought. And the water-based crop does not have to compete for the rapidly diminishing acreage now used for corn and wheat.

In theory, the potential for growing kelp is as big as the ocean is wide. Dr. Howard A. Wilcox, a staff scientist with the Naval Ocean Systems Center who is credited with first proposing the kelp-into-methane idea, estimates that an ocean farm of 140 million acres -- a hefty patch of sea surface larger in size than Texas but smaller than Alaska -- could supply the country's natural gas needs each year.

Such predictions, however, cause some of the more conservative project participants to cringe. Kelp farming on such a large scale is unlikely, contends GRI's Jerry Long, because the country will probably continue to get its energy from a variety of sources.

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