How an Alaskan fisherman saw potential for a sustainability startup in a mountain of crab shells

After Bering Sea crabs like these have been processed, seafood companies have been stuck with the problem of disposing of the shells. A Bellingham, Washington-based company called Tidal Vision has developed a green chemistry technology to turn discarded shells into a useful and sustainable industrial chemical. (Photo by Tidal Vision)

Perhaps the cliché is correct, that you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But Craig kasberg has successfully transformed waste salmon skin from its native Alaska into “water leather.” And now it’s using an environmentally friendly process to turn discarded crab shells into a valuable industrial chemical called chitosan.

It’s going wonderfully. This summer, Kasberg’s company Vision of the tides opened a production site in South Carolina and this fall the business will begin construction of a larger facility at its headquarters in Bellingham, Washington, located south of the Canadian border.

Chitosan (pronounced “kite-osan”) is a versatile polysaccharide that has numerous applications, including purifying water, promoting plant growth, and preserving fresh produce. It can replace toxic chemicals, metals, petroleum products, and pesticides used in industry. The plant in South Carolina, for example, will produce a liquid chitosan product that will be added to Leigh Fibers textiles to reduce odors caused by bacteria and make them less flammable.

After its launch just six years ago, Tidal Vision is the largest commercial chitosan producer in the US China is the world’s largest but uses a process that generates toxic waste. Instead, Tidal Vision employs “green chemistry,” a practice that includes reducing the amount of hazardous chemicals, waste, and energy used. Chitosan itself is in the praise US EPA Safer Chemical Ingredient List.

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A ribbon cutting in July 2021 at a new Tidal Vision production facility in South Carolina established in partnership with Leigh Fibers. From left to right: Daniel Mason, President of Leigh Fibers; Kari Ingalls, director of textile business development for Tidal Vision; Eric Westgate, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Leigh Fibers; and Craig Kasberg, co-founder and CEO of Tidal Vision. (Photo by Tidal Vision)

Since the term green chemistry was coined in the late 1990s, companies and researchers in the Pacific Northwest have embraced this approach. In recent years, Seattle’s Sironix Renewables took home a top prize in a global competition with its green laundry detergent and has raised millions in grants and funding. Zila’s works in Renton, Washington, it won a separate international competition for its hemp-derived epoxy resin. Amazon recently made it possible for customers to search for eco-friendly products that typically use green chemistry and are certified by the EPA’s Safer Choice label. Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington universities have made important discoveries in this field.

The sustainable approach to chemistry is an important factor in environmental progress.

“The principles of green chemistry are a necessary part of holistic thinking to create safer products and materials that use less energy throughout their entire life cycle,” he said Saskia van bergen, a green chemistry scientist at the Washington Department of Ecology.

Van Bergen noted that Tidal Vision meets many of the requirements of green chemistry, including creating a non-petroleum-based compound, using waste products as a source material, and generating fertilizers as a by-product.

The company produces chitosan flakes that are mixed into liquid formulas tailored to specific industrial applications. Tidal Vision produces more than 5 million gallons (19,200 metric tons) of chitosan solution annually. It employs 23 people with plans to grow to 60 by the end of next year.

We recently caught up with Kasberg to learn more about his green tech startup. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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Chitosan flakes produced from discarded husks. (Photo by Tidal Vision)

GeekWire: How did you come to launch Tidal Vision with co-founder Zach Wilkinson?

Kasberg: I lived in Juneau, Alaska, which is where I was born and raised. I grew up in the fishing industry and that’s where our raw material comes from. We are taking a biopolymer that is found in all crustacean shells, so crab, shrimp, lobster shells all have it.

I started working on commercial fishing boats, harvesting shellfish, when I was 14 years old, I was captain of my own boat at 19 years old. Seeing a third of the catch being shot it seemed like there had to be a better way and that is ultimately what inspired the research and creation of Tidal Vision.

GW: Between fishing and launching Tidal Vision in 2015, you also ran a sustainable seafood business and made leather from discarded salmon skins using a green chemistry process. How did you become interested in shells and chitosan?

Kasberg: The crabs are harvested from the ocean and then returned to very few processing sites. The same goes for the shrimp industry. And the EPA no longer allows processors to dispose of those shells in the ocean because in the past there have been ecological problems with that because they are so slow to biodegrade naturally.

So it is an abundant and troublesome by-product that they had to send to landfills or incinerators. We are just avoiding it. Not only are we taking a troublesome waste stream from the industry I know and love and grew up in, but now we can turn it into something that really does the world good, that displaces non-biodegradable toxins and heavy rails.

GW: It only took your team 1 and a half years to develop the green technology to convert the shredded husks into chitosan. Why hadn’t anyone done it already?

Kasberg: It all comes down to motivation, which drives innovation. The fishing industry does not sell biochemicals to the textile industry, agriculture, the water industry.

So it was a bit off where they focused and it’s a much more fragmented industry than, say, the rest of the agricultural industry, where a lot of research dollars have been heavily subsidized over many years and there has been a lot of focus on using. by-products. No one had taken that approach in the fishing industry.

GW: You said that chitosan is the second most abundant natural polymer after cellulose found in plants. But is there a chance you will run out of shells as you expand operations?

Kasberg: Shells are readily available and in large volumes. And what’s really impressive is how far those projectiles go. When you make a high-performance chitosan solution, you only need about 22 pounds of chitosan, which you can extract from about 100 pounds of shells. That produces something that can treat about 10 metric tons (or 2,641 gallons) of contaminated water and bind with all the pollutants and toxins. It is a very powerful performance. Or in textile and microbial applications, a 1-2% liquid chitosan solution is applied at a rate of 2-8% to these fabrics.

GW: Plans to build additional mixing facilities in the Midwest, Europe and Vietnam that convert chitosan flakes into solution. What drives your sales?

Kasberg: Our mission is to create positive and systemic change in these industries, and our strategy to achieve this is to set prices and position our products not only as the green chemistry alternative, but as the lowest-cost, green solution.

What we have discovered is that all of these companies are run by real people who truly care about the environment, and all of these industries are absolutely essential to supporting humanity. And if you say, “Hey, we have something comparable in cost that is more environmentally friendly,” that’s a very easy sell.

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