August 4, 2008 at 3:32 pm #3499
An idea worth its salt – Oceanwater crop touted as fuel, food
August 4, 2008 / byMarla Dickerson / Los Angeles Times
TASTIOTA, Mexico A few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, amid cracked earth and mesquite and sun-bleached cactus, neat rows of emerald plants sprout from the desert floor.
The crop is salicornia. It is nourished by seawater flowing from a man-made canal. And if you believe the American who is farming it, this incongruous swath of green has the potential to feed the world, fuel our vehicles and slow global warming.
He is Carl Hodges, a Tucson, Ariz.-based atmospheric physicist who has spent most of his 71 years figuring out how humans can feed themselves in places where good soil and fresh water are in short supply.
The founding director of the University of Arizonas Environmental Research Lab, his work has attracted an eclectic band of admirers. They include heads of state, corporate chieftains and Hollywood stars, among them Martin Sheen and the late Marlon Brando.
Through the years, Hodges knack for making things grow in odd environments has been on display at the Land Pavilion in the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World in Florida and the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona.
In the northern Mexican state of Sonora, hes thinking much bigger.
He wants to channel the ocean into man-made rivers to nourish commercial aquaculture operations, mangrove forests and crops that produce food and fuel. This greening of desert coastlines, he said, could add millions of acres of productive farmland and sequester vast quantities of carbon dioxide, the primary culprit in global warming. Hodges contends that it also could neutralize sea-level rise, in part by using exhausted freshwater aquifers as gigantic natural storage tanks for ocean water.
The only way we can stop (sea-level rise) is if people believe we can, Hodges said. This is the big idea that humanity has been waiting for, he believes.
All he needs now is $35 million. Thats where salicornia comes in. A so-called halophyte or salt-loving plant, the briny succulent thrives in hellish heat and pitiful soil on a little more than a regular dousing of ocean water.
Several countries are experimenting with salicornia and other saltwater-tolerant species as sources of food. Known in some restaurants as sea asparagus, salicornia can be eaten fresh or steamed, squeezed into cooking oil or ground into high-protein meal.
Hodges, who heads the non-profit Seawater Foundation, plugged salicornia for years as the plant to help end world hunger. Do-gooders applauded. The private sector yawned.
Then oil prices exploded. Hodges saw his shot to lift his fleshy, leafless shrub from obscurity.
Thats because salicornia has another nifty quality: It can be converted into biofuel. And, unlike grain-based ethanol, it doesnt need rain or prime farmland, and it doesnt distort global food markets.
Last year, Hodges formed a for-profit company called Global Seawater Inc. to produce salicornia biofuel in liquid and solid versions. He lugs samples of it around in a suitcase like some environmental traveling salesman.
The enterprise recently planted 1,000 acres of salicornia in rural Sonora, where Hodges has been doing preparatory research for decades. That crop will provide seed for a major venture planned 50 miles north in the coastal city of Bahia Kino. Global Seawater is trying to lease or buy 12,000 acres there for what it envisions will be the worlds largest seawater farm.
The plan is to cut an ocean canal into the desert to nourish commercial ponds of shrimp and fish. Instead of dumping the effluent back into the ocean, the company would channel it farther inland to fertilize fields of salicornia for biofuel. The seawaters next stop would be man-made wetlands. These mangrove forests could be sold to polluters to meet emissions cuts mandated by the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
Nothing is wasted, Hodges said.
Global Seawater already has a small refinery to process salicornia oil into liquid biodiesel, which Hodges believes can be produced for at least one-third less than the current market price of crude oil. Leftover plant material would be converted into solid biofuel logs that he said burned cleaner than coal or wood.
NASA is interested in testing fuel from Hodges halophyte. So are cement makers and other heavy industries. Retired executives from some major corporations are so encouraged by the potential that they are helping Global Seawater raise capital.
Fernando Canales Clariond, former Mexican secretary of the economy, recently joined the board. The world doesnt move because of idealism, he said. It moves because of economic incentives.
Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at the NASAs Langley Research praised Hodges science as superb. Still, he said algae might ultimately prove to be the best plant-based biofuel because it can produce much more fuel per acre.
August 4, 2008 at 3:37 pm #6677
Move over corn, corn husk & switchgrass ….. Hodge’s Sea Asparagus/Global Seawater – may solve Biofuel/Global Warming/Food & Water crisis! Great idea from someone known from thinking outside box (and maybe inside as well, since he has also done Walt Disney Epcot theme park & Arizona’s Biosphere 2 exhibit)
This could also be potential environmental option for the refineries when they have to build new wetlands or marshlands from dredged material – could form the manmade wetlands for the slatwater loving salicornia (sea asparagus) plants & serve as feedstock to their integrated biofuel plants.
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