The multi-phase project, which aims to diversify the region’s agricultural economy and remove toxins from waterways, would be one of the first of its kind, said lead researcher George Oyler, a research associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“… It allows South Sioux City to be a showcase to the world for agriculture and bioenergy in an integrated fashion, sustainable at multiple levels,” Oyler said at a news conference at City Hall last week.
Oyler is also CEO of Clean Green Chesapeake, a Baltimore biotech firm. Oyler founded Clean Green Chesapeake to focus on technologies for environmental improvement and algal biofuel production in the Chesapeake Bay, Midwest, and Southwest regions, according to the company’s website.
The university and Clean Green are collaborating on a pilot project that will grow algae for commercial aquaculture and bioenergy uses. The Nebraska Environmental Trust recently approved a $250,000 grant to help finance the test, which would create up to five jobs to start.
The researchers are partnering with the city of South Sioux City and local businessman Doug Garwood, owner of Cardinal Farms, which specializes in growing hydroponic tomatoes.
Garwood has created a business, Garwood Enterprises, to manage the commercial fish farm, which will begin by raising tilapia. Though high in demand, most of the freshwater species consumed in the U.S. is now imported from Asia, Oyler said. Raising tilapia and other fish, such as striped bass and trout, would help create a new source of income.
Oyler said the first phase of the pilot project is expected to begin this summer with development of a fish tank covering about an eighth of an acre.
The parcel also adjoins the city’s proposed wastewater treatment facility, scheduled for completion in 18 months. The sewage plant would eventually provide nutrient-rich organic waste needed to grow algae. Other sources would be manure from cattle feeders and heated waste water from local meat processing plants.
In the initial phase, a small anaerobic digester would break down the material. The gas captured would be used to power the municipal wastewater plant, saving the city an estimated $70,000 per year in electricity costs, said City Administrator Lance Hedquist.
Nitrogen and phosphorous separated from the waste stream would be used to fertilize the algae, which also requires sunlight and carbon dioxide to thrive, Oyler said.
The process would help the environment because excess nitrogen and phosphorous, from livestock manure and other farming practices, now runs off into streams and rivers, he said.
In the second phase of the project, Oyler said, additional fish ponds, or modules, would be developed, covering 3 to 10 acres. That level of expansion would create up to 30 to 40 jobs and raise 5,000 pounds of fish per year.
At least 250,000 pounds per year would be required for a commercial-size operation, he said.
If the tests prove successful, the venture has the potential to create hundreds of additional jobs, he said.
Longer term, the project developers also envision converting algae into biodiesel and jet fuel. About 30 percent of algae is oil, Oyler noted.
Between 2,500 and 3,000 gallons of biofuel could be produced from every acre of algae, he said. That compares, he said, to about 200 gallons of fuel can be derived from an acre of soybeans.