A group of students at Texas A&M University has hit upon a way to farm shrimp and grow a new biofuel crop in a combined process. The project comes from the AgriLife program, which draws from diverse parts of the school including the Texas Forest Service and the Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory as well as the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. It’s a broad approach that mirrors our transition to a more interconnected and sustainable way of harvesting energy.
Shrimp and Biofuel
The basic idea behind the students’ research is fairly straightforward. As reported by Lindsay Curtis at kristv.com, they are raising shrimp in tanks. Nutrient-rich waste from the shrimp tanks is sent to another tank, where it serves as plant food for a halophyte (a salt-tolerant plant) called salicornia. The salicornia in turn yields oil-rich seeds. The seeds are edible, so after the oil is extracted the leftover material is fed back to the shrimp. And the shrimp, which grow to jumbo size, could eventually end up on somebody’s dinner plate. On a commercial scale, the process could help prevent shrimp farm effluent from harming natural waterways. And, as an extra bonus, waste fiber from the plants could be used as a renewable material for manufacturing fiberboard.
The Salty Secret of Salicornia
Whether or not salicornia can produce biofuels that can compete on price with other biofuel crops remains to be seen. However, the potential is there. One factor could be the plant’s high level of salt tolerance. Saliconia is a wild plant that grows in estuaries and other salty environments, so it could be cultivated on marginal lands in areas where fresh water is unavailable. Another factor is the piggybacking with shrimp farming and fiberboard production, which could add enough value to make the overall operation a profitable one.
Shellfish to the Rescue
The A&M students are not the only ones to harness sea creatures for help in developing a more sustainable future. Over at the University of Connecticut, researchers are developing an engineered ecosystem based on seaweed and shellfish, which is designed to speed up the removal of excess nutrients in coastal waters. While the shellfish themselves may not be edible (that depends on the presence of other pollutants), they would help keep coastal waters more oxygen-rich and healthier for other forms of seafood.
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