Sea asparagus can be oil feedstock

By Ryan C. Christiansen | July 14, 2008
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Web exclusive posted July 31, 2008 at 5:03 p.m. CST

On two Gulf of California plantations in the state of Sonora, Mexico, Phoenix-based Global Seawater Inc. is using coastal land and seawater to grow what it sees as an important biodiesel feedstock that will help solve the world's energy needs. At farms in Bahia Kino and Tastiota, Mexico, Global Seawater is growing salicornia, a salt-loving halophyte plant that thrives in heat and poor soil.

Also known as sea asparagus, salicornia has traditionally been seen as a food source. However, "with increases in global energy prices, it became much more economically attractive to begin looking at salicornia as a feedstock for biodiesel and other energy products," said Jason McCoy, associate to the chief executive officer and chairman's office for Global Seawater.

Approximately 30 percent of salicornia seed per weight is oil and the remaining 70 percent of the oilseed biomass can be used as a protein feed for livestock, McCoy said, adding that the oil is very similar in quality to safflower oil. The company has used the oil as a feedstock to produce biodiesel which meets the BQ-9000 biodiesel accreditation standard, McCoy said, adding that between 225 and 250 gallons of biodiesel can be produce per hectare (approximately 2.5 acres) of salicornia.

Global Seawater is raising capital to create a 5,000-hectare (12,355 acres) commercial salicornia farm in the state of Sonora, Mexico. "We have a very healthy relationship with the people of Sonora and the federal government," McCoy said. "They are very supportive of what we're doing because they see the benefit for job creation, sustainability, and potentially for being a real leader in the renewable energy space." The company plans to begin construction of the commercial plantation this fall and have it finished next spring. Because salicornia is an annual plant, the first commercial harvest is planned for autumn 2009.

McCoy said salicornia can be farmed using traditional equipment. "This is very much like traditional farming," he said. "But what is unique and revolutionary about it is that we're using these coastal desert regions that are essentially unused and completely devoid of any life and seawater." He said the company is developing specialized equipment to increase productivity and the capture rate of the salicornia seed. The company is also testing use of the salicornia crop residue as feedstock for energy production.

"What's extremely important about what we do is that, unlike using traditional agriculture and food crops for energy, we can completely avoid and help solve the food versus fuel dilemma because we're not competing with arable agricultural land and we're not using freshwater resources," McCoy said. "The world really needs solutions that aren't just environmentally sound and make economic sense, but that are scalable."
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