Grease lightning

A test batch of biofuel at the Marine Institute: the top layer is biofuel, and the bottom is glycerin byproduct. Submitted photo.

Once only useful for grossing people out, fish guts may find a practical use and reduce the province’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Shawn Hayward wades into the idea.

The fishing industry of this province has recovered little since 1992’s cod moratorium. At the Marine Institute (MI), researchers hope to make the industry more profitable using material that’s usually sent to a land fill or dumped in the ocean.

Waste from fish processing includes the bone, entrails, and anything else that has no food value.

No food value, but potential energy value, because of the organic oils contained inside it.

If fish plants can use that oil to power their operation, they can save a lot of money, and reduce the waste they generate at the same time, according to Heather Manuel, director of Aquaculture and Seafood Development at MI.

“A number of fish processors have said one of their biggest expenditures is fuel costs,” she says. “They see this waste stream going out the door, with all this oil in it, and they see their fuel costs rising.”

Waste matter must go through a complex process before it becomes something that can be burned to make electricity. It first has to be pressed and heated, bone and other impurities filtered away, and then it goes through transesterification, when a catalyst is added that creates a chemical reaction producing biofuel.

Glycerine and soap stock are byproducts in the reaction, but glycerine and most of the soap stock can be used for other industrial purposes, according to Manuel. Glycerine, for example, is used to make explosives.

After transesterification, the biofuel can then be combined with fossil fuel to power a generator. Because of inefficiencies in biofuel, it can’t be used on its own, and usually makes up between 5 and 20 per cent of a biofuel/ diesel mixture.

Even with fossil fuels added, biofuel reduces greenhouse gases, according to Manuel. She says biofuel produced from fish waste reduces the amount of heat-absorbing molecules released into the atmosphere by 13 to 74 per cent, depending on the ratio of diesel to biofuel.

The technology used will be both new and old. Manuel says they’ll use similar equipment that’s used for vegetable oil processing, but it must be modified to handle fish waste.

“It’s not quite a perfect fit with fish oils because the fish oils come from a number of different sources and they have to be handled differently,” she says.

Companies on the mainland have tried using sea life as biofuel to varying degrees of success. In 2007, Ocean Nutrition Canada (ONC) was using fish oil to produce biofuel for vehicles. Manuel says MI tried to contact ONC when researching what other companies were doing.

“We’ve made attempts to find out about that process but haven’t been successful,” she says.

The Scope could not reach ONC as of deadline to learn if it was still selling biofuel.

LiveFuels Inc. of Texas recently announced the start of a pilot project that will raise fish for the sole purpose of turning them into biofuel.

While environmental bloggers have questioned the ethics of LiveFuels Inc., Manuel says the MI project shouldn’t share the same criticism.

“We’re not using animals just for fuel,” she says. “The animals are being harvested anyway for food processing. Rather than throwing it away, we’re making use of the raw material.”

The technology developed by MI will be made for the Newfoundland market. Manuel says MI’s goal is to design and build a mobile, easy-to-use biofuel generator that can be sent to fish processors across the island. Because fish plants are spread over a large area, it would be impractical for each plant to send its oil to a central location, according to Manuel.

“We would have a mobile unit which they could take on a loan basis to use at their facility,” she says.

Individual fish plants also don’t produce a lot of fish waste, and only during certain times of the year. Manuel says it wouldn’t be feasible for each plant to buy its own biofuel producing equipment.

The researchers have applied for a grant $1.5 million from the Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency (ACOA). The money will be used to build a 220-litre batch processing facility, and Manuel says they expect to hear back in the fall.

The fishery continues to be an important part of the provincial economy, despite the cod moratorium. The Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture’s most recent statistics show the province’s 143 fish plants produced one billion dollars worth of seafood in 2007, and employed 24,805 people.

Biofuel could make the industry more efficient, encouraging companies to employ people for longer periods, and possibly open up new plants.

“I think it will be of significant value,” says Manuel. “It will help them utilize a waste stream that will currently be discarded, so they’re not generating any value from it, and they may even have to pay disposal fees. It’s also helping them reduce their fuel costs.”