August 2014
In the News

From Pond Scum to Plastics

 

 
  This specially designed harvester is being used to collect algae from catfish ponds in Dallas County.

A new process for utilizing algae from catfish ponds may have far-reaching benefits for both the catfish industry and our dependence on oil.

Catfish farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt region suddenly find themselves with a potentially profitable use for what once was deemed a pain in the ponds.

"They" are algae, organisms that have been gathering and growing forever just beneath the surface of the water.

Now, instead of being derided, algae are being promoted as aquatic gold mines and supporters are doing their best to spread the word to others within the profession.

 
Dallas County catfish grower Butch Wilson holds two bottles containing algae retrieved from his ponds.  

In the past, it’s been called pond scum, useless plants and other negative names, but science may have unlocked a brighter future with a productive use for algae.

Catfish farmers in Alabama and Mississippi are being contacted about a budding industry linked to plastics – the biodegradable type that doesn’t last forever in landfills and aren’t totally dependent on petroleum, especially the foreign kind.

Converting pond organisms into plastic products may seem a bit farfetched, but not to Black Belt entrepreneurs who are convinced it’s the wave of the future for the catfish industry.

"We estimate that utilizing algae from catfish ponds can produce billions of pounds of plastic," John Dekker, director of business development for Algix and one of the promoters of the algae conversion process, told AFC Cooperative Farming News.

Butch Wilson, one of America’s leading catfish farmers, considers Algix a "win-win" proposition with a bright future thanks to something that touches parts of four states.

 
  ALGIX official John Dekker holds a plastic mold created from processed algae.

Dekker’s business is headquartered in Georgia while a corporate office is in Ohio. The conversion plant is in the little crossroads community of Browns, located 20 miles west of Selma just off U.S. 80 in the heart of Alabama’s catfish industry.

The fourth link is Meridian, Miss., where bioplastic resins are to be used to transform that pond-collected algae into useful creations ranging from personal-care products to electronics, construction needs and even toys.

Algix officials unveiled their unique operation last year in Selma and, in a company statement, said they looked forward to an "opportunity of growing sustainable, non-food-based feed stocks for the rapidly expanding bioplastic market and beyond."

They also cited their special technology, saying it would provide "additional benefits in the form of protecting and restoring the environment and increasing jobs."

Dekker said investor support for Algix is solid with backers willing to put their money on the line to make it successful.

"Anything like what we’ve got takes longer to develop, but we’re committed to its potential," he said. "It’s going to happen because it can be done. Of that, we’re convinced," he added.

So are catfish-country business executives such as Wayne Vardaman, president of the Selma-Dallas County Centre for Commerce.

"I have great hopes for them," Vardaman said of Algix. "Algae is something we have plenty of in our part of the country and what (Algix) is doing is one of those green projects that has become so important in the past few years."

Dependency on foreign oil has been a lingering concern in the United States and Dekker says a project such as Algix can help displace foreign petroleum by using domestically produced, aquatic feed stocks.

At the moment, Algix finds itself on the ground floor of a process that, in the near future, could be taken for granted within the catfish industry.

Right to left, algae harvested from catfish ponds in the Black Belt are collected to be transformed into pellets for plastic products. After algae processing is complete, what’s left will become plastic products used around the country.

"Nobody’s using it right now, but I’m excited by the prospects of what it can be down the road," said Wilson, who is using his Dallas County catfish farm as a prototype to demonstrate its potential. "I think it’s like discovering oil."

The Wright brothers were told their odd-looking creation would never fly in 1903, but they proved detractors wrong at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and, as a result, came up with something that changed history.

"When oil was first discovered, we tried to discard it as a nuisance, but that‘s no longer the case, of course," said Wilson. "Now, we’ve got algae and we’re just now beginning to understand how it can be used in beneficial ways."

Catfish farming may never come close to equaling the benefits of aviation, but it does impact millions in the form of production and consumption.

At the moment, Algix officials are putting into practical use a new technology created and patented by Kimberly-Clark and the University of Georgia.

Steps used in the conversion process involve harvesting of the microscopic organism from catfish ponds, drying it, then sending it on to Meridian and processing it into plastic resin pellets.

Dekker said catfish farmers who join the project as algae suppliers will be paid on a dry-weight basis for the algae taken from the ponds.

Innovations and recycling have had positive impacts on society in recent years, often transforming what once was considered useless into sought-after items.

"Today, waste streams are becoming another man’s treasure," Dekker said. "Right now it’s a matter of getting production going in an efficient manner."

Wilson says the algae conversion project is, in many ways, similar to the crude oil industry in that "it’s separated and then changed into something else from toothbrush handles to bigger products."

Algae are considered to be among the fastest growing plants in the world, not unlike kudzu that came to America from Japan to control soil erosion but slowly began to cover the landscape of Dixie.

Collecting something that isn’t visible to the naked eye might seem quite a challenge, but specially designed harvesters have been handling that requirement at the Browns facility.

Wilson describes the collection area as a "giant water oil field" and says "it’s just a matter of getting it."

"If it was easy everybody would be doing it, but the potential is out there," he said, pointing out that there are thousands of acres of catfish ponds in the Southeast.

Wilson said the harvesters have gone through several development stages since Algix had its grand opening last year and are being put to good use at his catfish ponds.

"We learn something every day, but, as far as profits are concerned, we haven’t gotten there yet," said Wilson. "A lot of money has been invested in this process and we’re convinced it’s going to work."

Wilson still enjoys linking the discovery of oil to Algix’s focus on a microscopic organism that, in the past, has been dismissed as inconsequential.

"We’ve got something today that we once tried to throw away and now we cherish it," he said of oil as he broke into a big smile. "No reason we can’t do the same thing with algae."

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.