Pond scum, more politely known as algae, is turning out to not only be profitable but environmentally friendly. Algae from catfish ponds is being used to produce plastic products without the same amount of petroleum-based ingredients. Proponents say it allows for production of plastics that are biodegradable.
Meridian’s Sonny Montgomery Industrial Park now houses Solaplast, a division of Algix, a company that converts algae from catfish ponds to plastics.
“The whole idea started back in 2006 when I became completely obsessed with algae,” said Ryan Hunt, chief technology officer.
He was a graduate student in physics and biological engineering at the University of Georgia when he became interested in the development of algae-based biofuels.
In 2007, Hunt and Senthil Chinnasamy, initiated the first algae research program at the University of Georgia’s Bioengineering department.
Hunt said the focus of research shifted after learning more of the limitations of algae with regard to producing fuel. However, it had a lot of protein and minerals, Hunt said, which are components of plastic.
They joined forces with Mike Van Drunen, and together they explored the development of bioplastics from algae. A lot of research, work and a few years later, Algix was launched.
During a tour of the Meridian facility on Friday, Van Drunen, CEO, said he was partly inspired by his concern over the amount of plastic that is used in the packing industry each year.
Algae to be dried and compounded into plastic not only comes from aquaculture such as farm-raised fish, it can also come from municipal and industrial wastewater systems, and from lakes and rivers, according to information from Algix.
An advantage of using algae is there is plenty of it, Van Drunen said. The average catfish pond is about 10 acres, he said. That pond will produce a minimum of 100,000 pounds of algae, dry weight, per year, he said. It can reach between 300,000 and 400,000 pounds, he added.
One piece of algae harvesting equipment will collect about 150,000 pounds of dried algae annually, he said.
“However, when we started, we thought we would only have one of those per pond,” Van Drunen said. “We have now gone to three of those per pond and we still have not seen the algae population drop. The algae grows so fast, it doubles every 24 hours.”
Once the Meridian plant is fully built out, company officials say the facility can produce 100 million pounds of plastic annually.
For every two pounds of catfish feed farmers put into the water, they get one pound of fish and Algix gets one pound of algae, he said. To expand its supply, Algix has purchased aquaculture operations in Jamaica.
In the U.S., catfish farmers typically feed their fish about eight months each year, skipping the winter months when catfish rarely grow anyway. An average temperature of 84 degrees in Jamaica makes year-round feeding and growing possible, but according to Van Drunen, there is another reason he and his wife Lisa have invested in Jamaica.
“We’ve been going there for 25 years. We know a lot of people. They are in poverty,” Van Drunen said. “They don’t have food. We are going to grow fish; we are going to take the algae and we are going to provide fish to the local people at a very low price. Our goal is to feed Jamaica.”
Photo: Ben Lockridge / The Meridian Star – Jars of algae. David Pinelli shows jars of algae during a Friday tour of the new Algix plant in Meridian.
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