Dr Georgina Robinson plans an overhaul of the current ‘nitrogen cycle’ process by which excess nitrogen in the form of animal waste is turned back into an inert gas and released into the atmosphere.
Instead, Robinson proposes a system that will recycle this waste by using it to feed sea cucumbers and marine worms – so-called deposit feeders – which can then be farmed as a high-protein food source for humans and livestock and may even be used to generate electricity.
Sea cucumber has been referred to as a superfood, as it is high in protein, low in fat and rich in vitamins and minerals. It is eaten throughout Asia and the Middle East and there are studies currently investigating its medicinal qualities.
Robinson has been awarded a UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellowship worth £1.2m to fund her research for the next six years.
The ecologist, who is based in Mauritius, said: “Proper nitrogen management will be critical to feed a growing global population, estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050.
“Current technologies to treat nitrogen-rich effluent focus on converting reactive nitrogen – nitrogen that is available to most organisms – back to its inert form as nitrogen gas in the atmosphere.
Too valuable to lose
“However, nitrogen is too valuable to be lost.
“Rather than looking to promote technologies for permanent removal of nitrogen, we can recover this valuable resource to pioneer sustainable food production systems and catalyse a new revolution in the nitrogen cycle.”
Robinson’s system introduces carbon and removes oxygen from the process to encourage uptake of nitrogen within deposit feeders, which work with bacteria naturally present in their gut and the surrounding soil or sediment to convert the waste into high value protein.
The approach upcycles and remediates nitrogen-rich effluent from aquaculture, by pairing carbon-rich waste streams from agriculture.
Robinson added: “The energy generated by the micro-organisms breaking down the waste is harnessed as a sustainable source of electricity, while the addition of carbon sources and deposit feeding invertebrates will enhance the overall energy generation potential of the system.”
During the course of Robinson’s fellowship, systems will be developed in marine and terrestrial settings in tropical (Mauritius) and temperate (UK) environments.
Dr Robinson said she hoped to develop a low-cost system for the food production sector that can increase revenue, while reducing environmental impacts, particularly in lower income tropical countries. It is envisaged that large-scale adoption of the technology would have the potential to secure food and feed production systems for generations to come.
Dr Adam Hughes, a senior aquaculture researcher at SAMS, said: “This is really exciting science, dealing with one of the biggest challenges we currently face. Georgina’s work is changing the way we think about waste and turning it into a resource, rather than a problem.”