Vietnam's booming fishing industry is now using waste products to generate energy. A research project in the Mekong Delta is researching how fish waste could potentially replace fossil fuels.
Dead fish lie in blue plastic bags. Hundreds of people with masks and hair nets stand at the assembly lines and cut the fish into pieces. These images appear in a promotional video for a Vietnamese fish factory belonging to the Hiep Thanh Seafood company.
The fish leave the factory as deep frozen filets. What's left behind is a huge mountain of waste that includes fish innards, scales and bones, amounting to 81 tons each day. But what looks like rubbish is in reality a precious raw material - because all that fish waste can generate energy.
Just like canola, jatropha and other oil plants, the fat content of fish waste can be used to produce biodiesel. That involves separating the fish oil and changing its chemical content by adding methanol.
Not every fish is suited for it though. It needs to have a high fat content - which is why fatty fish types such as salmon and catfish are best suited for the process.
In countries such as Honduras, Finland and Vietnam, fish producers have already experimented with making biodiesel from fish waste. The technology is likely to raise interest in South East Asia which is home to six of the ten largest aquaculture industries in the world.
Vietnam is the world's third-largest aquaculture producer worldwide and the top exporter of shark catfish. With a coastline of some 3,300 kilometers and the massive Mekong Delta, the country has some of the best conditions for fish breeding.
Home-grown and climate-friendly
That's exactly why the European Union research project "Enerfish Wege" is researching how fish waste can be converted into biodiesel and how that energy can best be used. Aulis Ranne from the Technical Research Centre of Finland, who coordinates the project, says the idea for it emerged during a trip to Vietnam,
"A tourist guide told us about the numerous fish producers and the lack of electricity in the region,“ Ranne says.
Since last year, a facility in southern Vietnam has started operations to test whether the project can be economical. It's a mid-sized production facility with a length of 14 meters, five meters wide and five meters high.
A few things still need to be ironed out but once the outfit is up and running at full capacity, it's expected to produce 13 tons of biodiesel each year.
The main aim of the project is to establish a circular flow economy. The biodiesel facility and production center are located close to each other. That allows the waste from the factory to be processed into biodiesel in the same place. And with the biodiesel, the factory in turn can power its generators and meet its own energy needs.
"The factory needs the electricity for its cooling and freezing operations," Aulis Ranne says. If more biodiesel is produced than needed, the factory can sell it further as fuel, making it a local energy source. Enerfish estimates that the advantages for the climate are huge – the equivalent of almost 14,000 tons of carbon dioxide could be saved each year.
Focus on energy security
For the fish producers too, producing biodiesel locally brings huge advantages. For one, they need no longer worry about power failures. Demand for energy in Vietnam is soaring. It's estimated that the country will by 2020 need three times more electricity than it currently produces.
Electricity supply in the country remains erratic with power cuts every second day. That's the reason many believe that business owners are likely to be interested in alternative energy generation schemes.
"If you're worried every second day that your freezer will thaw, you will consider it," Tobias Schäfer from TÜV Rheinland, one of the Enerfish partners, says.
Son Ha-Dang from the Vietnamese project partner Research Center for Energy and Environment agrees that energy security is one of the prime aims of the project. Self-made biodiesel would cut Vietnam's reliance on fuel imports.
But, so far the country has lacked the know-how and technical expertise in the field, Son Ha-Dong says. "The project is helping the government to gather and build on experience with the technology.“
New competition for precious raw material
But as often happens with the introduction of new technologies, Enerfish is struggling to make the project economically viable.
"When it comes to numbers, it's all still precarious,“ Schäfer says. The conditions in Vietnam don't make it any easier. The government has set targets to promote biofuels. By 2025, five percent of fuel needs are meant to be met by renewable raw materials, a part of which would come from fish fat.
But the government still tends to focus on fossil fuels and subsidizes conventional diesel. In addition, electricity remains cheap and fish oil has in recent years developed into a precious raw material.
Both the food and pharmaceutical industries are jostling to get their hands on the animal oil. A large part of fish waste is also used by animal feed producers.
Aulis Ranne says that until a few years ago, it was unconceivable that full-fledged competition would break out in Vietnam over fish oil. "Within a very short time, the structures have completely changed,“ Ranne says.
That means the situation could soon look different. That's why Son Ha-Dang says it's important to adopt a watch and wait attitude when it comes to biodiesel. "At some point, it will become profitable."
In the meantime, experts are already speaking of new locations for the precious fish oil. "The next step is Brazil,“ Aulis Ranne says. Kenya too has signaled interest in the technology. The process would work especially well where fish waste has so far simply been thrown away and where energy generation is poor.
Biodiesel from fish fat, it seems, could certainly be a energy source for a niche segment and one that would save resources.