The Kampachi Company may be best known for its recent efforts to grow “king kampachi”, aka kahala or almaco jack (Seriola rivoliana), in ocean-based cages, but it also is performing research with plans to make a play in the seaweed space.
By Jason Huffman
The Kona, Hawaii-based company has just received a $3.3 million grant from the US Department of Energy (DoE) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA‑E) program to further its efforts to convert marine macroalgae into biofuels and other useful products. It was one of 40 new projects for which the ARPA-E program recently awarded a combined $98m, according to a press release.
While the administration of US president Donald Trump has been advocating for the use of fossil fuels, DoE has simultaneously been helping to promote next-generation energy sources. The agency believes US offshore resources could support enough seaweed production to supply up to 10% of the current demand for transportation fuel and has cast “an envious eye on seaweed production in Asia and other parts of the world,” the alternative energy publication Clean Technica reported more than a year ago. The grant is the second from ARPA-E for the company within a little more than a year. It received a $500,000 grant in October 2017.
The Kampachi Company’s Kyphosid Ruminant Microbial Bioconversion of Seaweeds (KRuMBS) project aims to culture seaweed for use as fuel, food and feed, Neil Sims, the company’s co-founder and chief scientific officer, told Undercurrent News. Or, as the DoE press release put it, work with other businesses and universities to “isolate, optimize and deploy microbial consortia and individual microorganisms capable of rapidly digesting macroalgal biomass in a highly scalable way”.
Undercurrent reported earlier this month how the Kampachi Company, which has some 200,000 fish in cages in Mexico’s Gulf of California, has gained an equity investment from the Althelia Sustainable Ocean Fund worth $5m. Also, the company reported being just a few months away from having its first king kampachi harvest and aims to produce 100t of fish by the end of the first quarter of 2019. By the end of 2019, it hopes to be harvesting at a pace of 1,200 metric tons per year.
But there’s more to Kampachi than just kampachi.
“Our work is not solely fish-focused. Our king kampachi is just the most immediately achievable means to these ends,” Sims said. “We see innovative aquaculture as a way to mend or mitigate that which ails the oceans … as a salve for the seas, if you will. If we can do this in a way that provides people with nutritious food, or that feeds fish which produce great-tasting sashimi, and then turn a profit at the same time, then that is the environmental/social/ governance triple trifecta.”
Seaweed can absorb CO2, countering ocean acidification and nutrients, especially in so-called “dead zones”, and increase marine productivity and biodiversity, Sims explained. But, rather than asking the public or governments or foundations to pay for ocean remediation, the company sees the prospect of harnessing entrepreneurial initiatives to achieve these goals, he said.
“We know of no other means by which humankind can achieve the scale of eco-remediation that is needed for our oceans,” he said.
The Kampachi Company isn’t the only one trying to turn seaweed into fuel. National Public Radio’s The Salt reported last year how the University of Southern California has been involved in research along the same lines, using a process called “thermochemical liquefaction”.
The kelp is dried out, and the salt is washed away. Then it’s turned into bio-oil through a high-temperature, high-pressure conversion process, the article explained.
So, how is the seaweed research going at the Kampachi Company?
A partner group at Makai Ocean Engineering, also in Hawaii, meanwhile, has been working to design and deploy a mooring system for offshore seaweed culture and to develop seeding and harvesting techniques, he said. The company’s separately maintained macroalgae research team has been engaged in land-based trials, trying to identify the best seaweed species for scale-up offshore while also working closely with seaweed culture experts from Chile, where seaweed farming is an established industry, to better understand how to reproduce the vegetation in captivity, Sims told Undercurrrent.
The company is hoping to obtain a phase II award for the land-based seaweed trials that will allow it to extend this work to offshore seaweed culture trials.
Also, as part of its work in the KRuMBS project, the company’s Kona-based research team has been conducting tank trials on rudderfish (kyphosus or “nenue” in Hawaiian), testing a range of diets and refining techniques for spawning and larval rearing, Sims said.
They are a “highly esteemed native herbivorous reef-fish”, which can be fed the same kind of diet as tilapia but yield an end product that tastes like snapper, he told Undercurrent.
The rudderfish are so efficient at digesting seaweed, however, that Kampachi Company’s researchers believe they might be able to co-opt their gut microbiome to improve the efficiency of seaweed “bio-digestors”, Sim said. The company is hoping to obtain a phase II award that will allow it to extend this work to offshore seaweed culture trials.