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Researchers Turn Fish Waste Into A Coffee-Scented Biofuel

Environment: Hydrothermal carbonization transforms seafood discards into hydrochar, a carbon-rich solid

by Deirdre Lockwood
December 15, 2015

Credit: Energy Fuels
Scanning electron micrographs show hydrochar produced from fish waste (left) and shrimp waste (right).

Before that beautiful salmon filet lands on your plate, a lot of less appetizing stuff gets stripped away: By one estimate, the global seafood industry produces 64 million metric tons of waste each year. A new study suggests a potentially sweeter fate for all those heads and guts: They can be turned into a coal-like substance called hydrochar, which could be used as fuel or added to soil to improve fertility and sequester carbon (Energy Fuels 2015, DOI: 家居行业五大安全隐患曝光 6企业发“良心”倡议).

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Credit: Shutterstock
Researchers turned fish and shrimp waste into a potential biofuel called hydrochar.
Credit: Shutterstock
Researchers turned fish and shrimp waste into a potential biofuel called hydrochar.

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So she and her colleagues ground up samples of fish and shrimp waste from a local market, and heated them by microwaving the waste in quartz vessels at high pressure and 150 °C for an hour. But they obtained no hydrochar, not even when they treated the waste with acid first. So Kannan tried again, first treating the waste for 16 hours with three commercially available enzyme products used in a previous study that made hydrochar from food waste (Bioresour. Technol. 2014, DOI: 10.1016/j.biortech.2014.03.022). The enzymes, including lipase and protease, hydrolyze complex macromolecules in the food waste into simpler compounds such as glucose. This time, it worked: The team recovered 29% of the dry weight of the fish waste as char, and 36% of the shrimp waste. The char smelled like coffee, Kannan says; she suspects this may be a sign of the Maillard reaction, the reaction between amino acids and carbohydrates that takes place when food is browned.

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S. Kent Hoekman, an environmental scientist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., says he is impressed with the researchers’ application of an existing technology to a new problem, and the use of enzymes to help carbonize the seafood waste. However, he notes it would be physically and economically challenging to scale up the process for real waste streams, especially because the required enzyme treatment would be expensive and slow. There’s no significant market in the U.S. for biocoal products like hydrochar, but that could change with policies like a potential carbon tax, he says.




Martin Hitzl (December 17, 2015 3:35 AM)
Higher temperatures and mixing seafood waste with other biomass can help to autocatalyse the Hydrothermal process. Ingelia, a Spain based company, is introducing industrial-scale Hydrothermal technology for treatment of Organic fraction of MSW.
Joe Valko (December 17, 2015 9:11 AM)
Since this processing to form hydrochar appears to eliminate the objectionable odor, in view of the high nitrogen and probably reasonable phosphorous content, it seems that its use as a soil enricher might be a better avenue for its use than as a fuel. A higher residual water content in the hydrochar could be tolerated if used as a soil enhancer. Before it is considered for use as a fuel, it would be a good idea to determine the nitrogen oxides content from its burning in air.
Ed Drescher (December 17, 2015 1:30 PM)
Where did the other two thirds of the dry weight go?
Deirdre Lockwood (December 28, 2015 3:15 PM)
The researchers refer to the remainder as "bio-crude liquor" -- a dark brown liquid of pH 7. They plan to characterize it and determine whether chemicals of interest could be extracted from it.

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