ANCHORAGE - Alaska's groundfish harvest may energize more than the coastal economy if a unique demonstration of Bering Sea fish power works out.
In a technological experiment that could lower costs in some Alaska villages and fish processing enterprises, a big processing plant in Dutch Harbor has been generating electricity with a blend of pollock oil and diesel fuel.
After burning 80,000 gallons of filtered fish oil in one of its 2.3-megawatt generators over two months last fall, Unisea has found no problems and cleaner emissions, according to engineer John Steigers, a Colorado-based consultant overseeing the project.
"The energy content of fish oil is about 90 percent of that of No. 2 diesel, which is a common fuel," Steigers said. "So it's right up there. It's actually smoother combustion and more efficient."
Initial tests showed no ill effects to the 12-cylinder, 4,000-horsepower Fairbanks-Morse generator engine, plus significantly lower emissions for particulate, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. More important, the fishy fuel cost almost a $1 per gallon less than the diesel it replaced.
Unisea President Terry Shaff said in a written statement that the company is happy with the results so far. "Basically it means a new market for a low-end product, and that helps us and the industry," Shaff said.
Another trial began Feb. 1, with the same generator burning the fish-oil blend around the clock until spring or until this season's supply of fish oil runs out. After that, the consultants plan to overhaul the engine to check for any problems.
"Right now, assuming the test works out well, it's lowering the cost of power generated at the Unisea plant," said Peter Crimp, head of alternative energy programs for the Alaska Energy Authority.
"As Alaskans, what we care about is using our local products to the highest value. If you can substitute a diesel product that costs $1.20 per gallon with something that only costs 25 cents per gallon, you're far ahead," he said.
Alaska fish processors siphon and press something like 18 million gallons of fish oil as a byproduct every year, including about 3.5 million gallons in Unalaska, according to Steigers and the Alaska Energy Authority.
Usually sold to Pacific Rim markets, the seasonal glut of fish oil drives down its value to the point that processors must practically give it away, Steigers said.
So Unisea asked Steigers, one of its consultants, to find out whether it could be burned in its power plant. Vegetable and plant oils have been mixed with diesel fuel but can gum up exhaust ports and must be used in low concentrations.
Except for a small test a few years ago at a Fairbanks-Morse plant, no one had ever tried burning fish oil with diesel in a generator before.
Last spring, Unisea was granted $70,396 from the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, along with $15,000 from the Alaska Energy Authority and the U.S. Department of Energy, to work with Steigers to perform the Fish Oil Demonstration Project.
Additional help has come from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the Fairbanks-Morse Engine Division and participants in the Pacific Biomass Energy Program.