USC researcher Diane Kim smiles outside the laboratories of the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island. Kim is part of a group of USC researchers, professors, and students working to grow giant kelp on an elevator in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Maurice Roper)
USC researcher Diane Kim smiles outside the laboratories of the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island. Kim is part of a group of USC researchers, professors, and students working to grow giant kelp on an elevator in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Maurice Roper)

Diane Kim didn't always dream of helping launch a sustainable fuel revolution with an underwater elevator and some algae grown in a lab.

As an undergraduate studying biology at USC, she thought she might be a pharmacist.

"I was a 'floater' for a while," she said. "I'm the first generation to go to college in the United States, so my parents [only knew] traditional career paths — doctor, lawyer, pharmacist — I would have [pharmacy] internships, and I just wanted to pull my hair out every time I had to go in."

The solution, it turned out, was more school. In what she describes as a transformative experience, Kim spent a semester at the USC Wrigley Institute on Catalina Island conducting independent research, learning alongside leaders in the field of marine microbiology.

After graduating, she returned to USC for graduate school, eventually obtaining a Ph.D. studying marine microorganisms. She then returned to the Wrigley Institute, where she is now the Director of Undergraduate Programs and Associate Director of Special Projects.

"Now, being on the other side of things, I feel like I've come full circle," she said.

Kim's position at Wrigley led her to a project in a different field of study: giant kelp. It started when she was contacted by Brian Wilcox from a company called Marine BioEnergy.

Wilcox has been an engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena for the last 35 years, but he's always been interested in turning giant kelp into a commercial biofuel, a project that was the life's work of his late father. In 2008, while Kim was still working towards her Ph.D., Wilcox successfully filed a patent for a new method to mass-produce giant kelp in the open ocean.

"A major difficulty with the huge kelp farms envisioned by [my father], Dr. Wilcox, was the enormous capital cost of the system," Brian said. "In order to produce energy at competitive costs, the proposed farms would have to be extremely large, 100,000 acres or more."

"The new approach [would] use low-cost underwater drones to tow farms of kelp in the open ocean, diving to depths to absorb nutrients and surfacing to absorb sunlight."

As Brian explains, giant kelp can grow a foot a day under ideal conditions, when it has enough nutrients and sunlight. The difficult part is that nutrients are concentrated in the deeper ocean, far below the sunny surface.

To pursue this goal, Wilcox co-founded Marine BioEnergy with his wife, Cindy Wilcox, serving as Chief Engineer and President, respectively. When it came time to test the idea in the field, the Wilcoxes realized they would need the aid of a research facility with marine biology experts and access to the open ocean.

That's where Diane Kim and the Wrigley Institute came in.

"When I first heard about [the project], and I heard about the big picture, which is basically these large, autonomous, moving underwater farms, I thought, 'That's crazy!'" Kim said. "But the more I thought about it — I thought about the network of planes in the sky, and all you're talking about is an underwater version, a large network of underwater farms that you use for fuel and other products — and then it doesn't become so far-fetched in my mind."

An artistic rendering of a kelp farm run by automated drones. Brian and Cindy Wilcox hope that their company, Marine BioEnergy, can have these drones operating between California and Hawaii in five years. (Image courtesy of Diane Kim).
An artistic rendering of a kelp farm run by automated drones. Brian and Cindy Wilcox hope that their company, Marine BioEnergy, can have these drones operating between California and Hawaii in five years. (Image courtesy of Diane Kim).

The Future of Fuel?

Brian and Cindy Wilcox have big dreams for the future. But to get there, they're drawing from scientific work conducted over the last 100 years.

"During World War I, giant kelp was harvested off the coast of California to make smokeless gunpowder and two of the by-products were butanol and ethanol, both useful fuels," Cindy explained. "In the 1970s, the US Navy effort made methane and other fuel products from kelp at laboratory scale."

"[We] think that the nation and the world need an abundant supply of renewable fuels that do not require agricultural land, fresh water or artificial fertilizers," she continued. "With adequate nutrients, kelp will grow 30 centimeters a day and can be harvested four times a year. [And] giant kelp is relatively easy to process into fuel."

The Wilcoxes say it only took one visit to the Wrigley Institute to convince supporters of the project to contract out the kelp experiments there.

"[The USC Wrigley Institute] brings the needed marine biology expertise. Wrigley has a great facility and location on Catalina Island with nearby access to deep, clear coastal water, similar to the open ocean," Cindy said.

In addition to their partnership with USC researchers at the Wrigley Institute, the Wilcoxes also work with scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who focus on turning the kelp into biofuel.

If the two sides of the project are both viable, the Wilcoxes plan to scale the operation up to the open ocean. The temporary kelp elevator on the coast of Catalina Island will be removed, and nursery-grown kelp will instead be transplanted to giant floating farms controlled by drones.

To understand the need to scale up the project, Cindy provided an analogy.

"It takes millions of tons of kelp to make a significant contribution to the U.S. requirement for liquid fuels," Cindy explained. "To provide an idea of scale, we have estimated that to replace 10 percent of the liquid fuel now used by the United States, we would need about 220,000 square kilometers under cultivation. That is an area about the size of Utah. There is room in the Pacific Ocean for more than 705 areas the size ofUtah."

According to Cindy, the drones will provide the same cycling function as the elevator, but with the capacity to control a much larger operation.

"In five years we plan to have unmanned drones towing farms in the open ocean between California and Hawaii," she said.

The reason why this project has scientists like the Wilcoxes so excited is that it can be cost-competitive with oil while achieving a significantly better environmental impact.

For one, the drones will use wave and solar energy to charge their batteries. Additionally, kelp itself results in less greenhouse gas pollution, which contributes to global warming.

"When kelp is grown, it absorbs CO2 from the environment," Brian said. "When it is burned, it emits an equal amount of CO2 into the environment. So it is 'carbon neutral.'Fossil fuels are not carbon neutral because they emit CO2 into the environment that has been locked away out of the environment for tens or hundreds of millions of years."

For now, though, the fate of the project rests largely in the hands of the Wrigley team. If they can't demonstrate that the kelp elevator project is viable, it will never scale up to the open ocean. Kim, for one, is not daunted by the challenge.

"The goal of the Wrigley Institute is to become not just completely self-sufficient in regards to energy, water, waste, and food, but to become a test bed for innovative sustainable solutions," Kim said. "This project is a really great example of going in that direction. We want more people like the Wilcoxes to come and approach us because we offer this really unique space for them to test out their ideas."

James Sturges (’18) and Maurice Roper (a staff member at the Wrigley Institute) tend to kelp underwater. (Photo by David Ginsburg)
James Sturges (’18) and Maurice Roper (a staff member at the Wrigley Institute) tend to kelp underwater. (Photo by David Ginsburg)

It takes a village

The current project at the Wrigley Institute is a proof-of-concept, meaning it's a scaled-down model designed solely to see if the idea works. But that doesn't mean the work is simple.

In fact, USC has a whole team of scientists attending to different parts of the project, composed of both faculty and undergraduates.

One of the program's co-leads, David Ginsburg, is an Associate Professor of Teaching in the school's Environmental Studies Program (ENST). Ginsburg is perhaps best known for the scientific diving class he teaches, and the subsequent summer dive trip he leads in Palau and the Caribbean. His work on the kelp project is similar.

"My idea was to bring undergraduate scientific divers into this project and give them an opportunity to participate in research, and take this as another level of their scientific diving experience," Ginsburg said.

The Wrigley scientists are using an underwater elevator system designed by Marine BioEnergy. Kim grows kelp in the lab until it's mature enough to enter the water, at which point Ginsburg attaches it to the underwater elevator off the coast of Catalina Island, which cycles the kelp up and down, to nutrient-rich water at night and back up to surface during the day.

"What we're proposing to do," Kim said, "is instead of taking the nutrient-rich water to the kelp, take the kelp to where the nutrients are, and then bring them back up to where the light is."

Ideally, this will allow them to achieve their target amount of growth, which would make the operation cost-competitive with other sources of energy, and which lab tests have shown is possible with this technique.

To complete this task, Ginsburg explains, the labor is roughly divided into two sections: land and sea.

Kim organizes the land project, growing kelp in the nursery, doing lab tests meant to mimic underwater conditions, and recruiting undergraduates to help with anything from growing kelp to designing buoys.

Ginsburg runs the ocean tests. As an experienced scientific diver with a background in kelp forest ecology, he helps coordinate everything after the kelp goes in the water. This includes attaching the kelp to the elevator and monitoring its condition, running additional experiments, and instructing undergraduate divers.

The Wrigley scientists are funded through a United States government agency called ARPA-E, which awards high-risk, high-reward contracts to research projects on energy. Contracts can go for millions of dollars, but researchers only get the full money if the projects are successful.

But Ginsburg maintains that the pressure of managing such a grant does not distract him from the task at hand.

"As a teaching faculty, my focus is really teaching and getting undergraduates opportunities to work on this project, not doing research myself," Ginsburg said. "The other focus relative to the grant is to make sure that work gets done. We have to make sure that the kelp stays alive and keeps going."

A new generation of environmental scientists

Jackie Hernandez is a senior at USC, majoring in environmental studies. This summer, as an undergraduate research fellow at the Wrigley Institute, she lived and worked on Catalina Island for 10 weeks under the mentorship of Diane Kim.

Using flow tanks in one of the Wrigley laboratories, which simulate the constant cycling of ocean water that helps kelp survive, Hernandez created different conditions, or microclimates. By changing the amount of light and nutrients available to the kelp, she was able to observe under which conditions they achieved ideal growth, and how much growth that was.

"The microclimates were mimicking what we would see with the kelp elevator," she explained. "I was going from conditions that mimicked shallow water, where it was warmer, had light, and was nutrient-poor, to a deep water condition that was dark, full of nutrients, and very cold."

This semester, Hernandez has continued her work with Kim on the land portion of the project alongside other undergraduates, like environmental engineering major Margaux Wilson.

Wilson helps Brian Wilcox set up and design the buoys.

"It's one thing to just be told what environmental scientists and engineers do," Wilson said. "But to actually see it, even if it's the smallest role, you're learning so much and you get to ask question after question. It's been a really great experience."

On the ocean side of the project are students like senior James Sturges, an environmental studies major and marine biology minor. Last spring, Sturges obtained his scientific diving certification, and works with Ginsburg as an undergraduate research fellow on the kelp project.

"My project this summer entailed collecting [from] natural populations, taking [young kelp], and then transplanting them into the cove [where the project is taking place]," Sturges said. "It was an independent study project that I had complete control over, which was really nice. Most research projects a professor will just tell you what to do, but I had a lot more freedom and a lot more leeway in terms of how I wanted to design the project."

For Sturges, the experience of working closely with USC faculty has been an invaluable one.

"What's great about the kelp project itself is there are so many different people involved with it that it actually gets a very diverse look, and definitely different opinions coming in," Sturges said. "While a lot of times you just have one person directing everything, this project itself is very interdisciplinary and requires a lot of collaborative efforts between different professors."

As someone who also did research as an undergraduate at USC, Kim believes it's important that the school continues to offer these opportunities.

"As an undergrad, this is the time for exploration," Kim said. "At some point hopefully you find some things that pique your interest, some things that you enjoy working on and thinking about that you get to pursue."

"As you work on those things, you'll find that more opportunities will arise, including things that you never even thought about before. It's a lifelong process, and I'm still going through it."