Italy biodiesel group aims for fuel from seaweed

ROME (Reuters) - A group of Italian biodiesel producers said on Wednesday they have begun a project to move away from using food crops for fuel by using seaweed instead.

Eight companies that already produce diesel from crops like maize and rapeseed are involved in the 10 million euro ($14 million) project, which they hope will produce fuel from seaweed on a commercial basis within five years.

“The initiative aims to substitute or integrate the raw material used today (cereals) with another which does not compete with crop cultivation,” said Pier Giuseppe Polla, vice-president of Italy’s Union of Biodiesel Producers, which heads the Mambo project.

The group said it is working with scientists at the University of Florence to choose a seaweed species that will be grown in plastic tubes of seawater and fed with carbon dioxide captured from thermal power stations.

The group said it expects to have established the process in two years and will begin building a plant at a coastal location, probably in southern Italy. The plant should be producing diesel within five years from now.

Biofuels are made of plant material and when burned produce less carbon dioxide emissions than fossil fuels. However, they have become controversial due to concerns they have contributed to rising food prices.

Detractors of current biofuels say an increase in production -- especially using U.S. maize -- was one of the main reasons food prices soared in the last two years, forcing millions of people to go hungry as farmland was used for fuel rather than food.

The United States says they have only a marginal impact on food prices, and that prices spiked due to richer diets in countries like China and India, poor harvests and the knock-on effects of record-high oil prices.

There are a variety of second-generation biofuels, using non-food plants and waste products, in the experimental phase.

Rising prices for food oils and European Union rules requiring automotive fuels to contain an increasing proportion of bioenergy are the economic drivers behind the project, Polla said.

Reporting by Robin Pomeroy; editing Karen Foster