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A Quest To Save The Struggling Fish Farm Industry With Algae And Ingenuity

The algae biofuel industry has struggled to stay afloat. One company is giving up on making fuel and repurposing its technology to help improve the economics of aquaculture.

A Quest To Save The Struggling Fish Farm Industry With Algae And Ingenuity
[Image: Algae via Shutterstock]

Just half a decade ago, algae biofuel was trumpeted as a possible panacea to all of our energy woes (it doesn’t use much land, it has minimal environmental impact), but high operating and capital costs–combined with low oil prices–have required renewable algae oil companies look for other avenues of profit.

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One of these companies, OriginOil, is making inroads in the aquaculture industry with a closed-loop system that can both clean the water in fish ponds and produce nitrogen-rich water for fish feed.

“The whole fish farm industry in the U.S. has been hit by high feed costs and energy costs,” says Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of OriginOil. The problem has gotten so bad, he says, that numerous fish farms closed in California during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. He hopes that OriginOil’s technology can help keep costs down.

On a basic level, the company’s system can cut down on bacteria and ammonia in fish ponds, making it possible for farmers to reduce antibiotic use (since cleaning water also cleans out pathogens) and increase the number of fish they put in each pond (fish generate their own ammonia, so the better you can clean out the substance, the more fish you can have in one place).

“We have proprietary technology that uses an algorithm to switch the ammonia into nitrogen. Free chlorine is generated through an electrochemical reaction, and that’s what actually sanitizes water, kills the bacteria. Then we pull out the chlorine,” explains Eckelberry. “We can either leave nitrogen in water as nitrates for growing algae, or we can turn it into nitrogen gas and the water goes back to the pond with nothing in it.”

Farmers don’t have to grow algae to use OriginOil’s system, but it certainly helps. “Algae is the killer app for the aquaculture industry,” says Eckelberry. “You can generate feed on site, it’s cheaper, it has a good seafood-y flavor, you have the omega 3s, and with all those filtering ponds to get ammonia out gone, you can start growing algae.” In most cases, algae cuts down on fish feed prices by three times (an algae and corn combo costs $418 dollars per ton of feed, while fishmeal and corn costs $1,198 dollars per ton of feed).

According to Eckelberry, OriginOil can deploy a system that processes water in a quarter million gallon pond for five figures, and it can furnish a “decent-sized algae harvester” for under $100,000.

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OriginOil only recently completed a pilot test of the technology, but New Global Energy has already agreed to deploy it in two sites across 120 acres in California’s Coachella Valley–an area hit hard by fish farm closures.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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