Tidal Vision develops better method for chitosan production
Innovative Whatcom County-based businesses are changing and improving industries across the country and around the world, without us ever knowing they are here. Tidal Vision is one fantastic example.
With hard work and outside-the-box thinking, Tidal Vision has developed a more environmentally friendly method of creating a simple, low-cost product, chitosan. This new biopolymer is revolutionizing industries such as the water treatment, textile, food preservation and agriculture sectors across the U.S., all while making those processes better for people and the planet.
Tidal Vision’s mission is to create positive systemic environmental change by making chitosan lower cost, more convenient, and better performing than synthetic chemicals.
“The markets for chitosan are huge,” explains Tidal Vision co-founder and CEO, Craig Kasberg. “We have a low-cost input and extraction process that we are able to do on an industrial scale. Most of the chemicals we’re displacing are expensive heavy metals that need to be mined and refined or are sometimes derived from petroleum that has to be drilled, refined and shipped. Our formulas make it convenient for these industries to switch without added cost or development. Adoptions are growing rapidly.”
What is chitosan?
Chitosan, pronounced “kite-o-san,” is a close relative of chitin, the complex sugar and biopolymer that gives strength to the cell walls of fungi and arthropods (including insect and shellfish exoskeletons or shells). It’s the second most abundant biopolymer in the world, after cellulose, the building block of plants.
To truly appreciate how useful chistosan is, you might need to remember some high school biology and chemistry. The magic of chitosan is that the overall charge of the molecule is positive, making it a cation, or positively charged ion.
“It’s the only natural material with a positive or cationic charge, so it can displace a lot of synthetic and often toxic chemicals in a lot of different industries,” Kasberg said.
Common cationic solutions used in industry today include many heavy metals — cadmium, copper, iron, lead, silver and zinc — that are toxic to humans and our oceans.
“The challenge was how to extract it, purify it and then convert that into a finished liquid chitosan solution, because chitosan is not water soluble,” Kasberg said. “That’s where we’ve invested years of biochemistry development work.”
The proprietary process is environmentally friendly.
“It’s a zero-waste process,” Kasberg said. “We’re fully utilizing this raw material. After the chitosan is extracted from the biomass, the 80% of the crab, shrimp, lobster, crustacean shells that is not chitosan, we sell as a fertilizer. It’s this miracle biopolymer that occurs naturally in nature, and all we’ve done is figure out an environmentally friendly, low-cost way of extracting it, and, through another process, turning it into a finished product.”
A foundation in the fishing industry and culture
Kasberg grew up working on commercial fishing boats in Alaska, part of a crew at age 14.
“When I was 19, I got a loan from the State of Alaska and began captaining my own commercial salmon fishing vessel in the summers while going to college,” Kasberg said.
“I got really passionate about finding a purpose for all these byproducts generated from the seafood industry,” Kasberg added. “There is still so much discarded in the fishing industry. I just thought there had to be a better way.”
The seafood industry annually generates about 106 tons of waste, including a high percentage of chitin. But there are financial and environmental costs associated with its disposal.
Tidal Vision’s other co-founder, CSO Zach Wilkinson, also worked in Alaska.
“Zach was doing economic and technology development work, some of which overlapped with the seafood industry,” Kasberg said.
Together, their skill sets meshed well for developing a greener extraction method to make chitosan affordably.
“Zach and I started Tidal Vision in Juneau, Alaska, in 2015,” Kasberg said. “We spent a year with a Ph.D. chemist developing this unique chitosan extraction process.”
In 2016, Tidal Vision relocated to its first warehouse in Kent, where Kasberg and Wilkinson built a pilot plant for this extraction process. Then came Bellingham.
“Four years ago this month, we relocated to Whatcom County, and we’ve been headquartered here ever since,” Kasberg said. “It just made sense to be here. It’s more affordable than King County. There is room to expand in commercial real estate development, and it’s a great hub for the seafood industry, where our raw materials come from.”
After years of development, it was around 2018 that Tidal Vision was able to scale its extraction method and sell chitosan to various industries as a product.
Now Tidal Vision has more than 84,000 square feet of production and warehouse space in two facilities in Bellingham, on Irongate Road and Valencia Street.
“Our goal from the beginning, Zach and I, has always been to reduce waste to encourage sustainable fisheries by developing and commercializing technologies that turn waste into value,” Kasberg said.
That effort has the potential to protect the livelihood of fishermen long-term.
“Fishermen harvest live crab and bring them to very few locations for processing,” Kasberg said. “These shells are 40% calcium carbonate, which is basically limestone, so they are very slow to naturally biodegrade. Seafood processors are no longer allowed to dump the waste shells in the ocean anymore, so they were hauled to landfills or incinerated. We’re giving the seafood industry a useful use and income for what was traditionally waste biomass.”
Tidal Vision is able to use waste from a variety of sources as an input to the process.
“We can process raw material from any crustacean shell,” Kasberg said. “We work with seafood processing companies that are supporting sustainable fisheries, that are harvesting with pots, not with bottom trawling gear. From shrimp shells to local Dungeness, to opilio or snow crab and king crab from Alaska, even lobster and other crustaceans from the East Coast.”
National and global applications
This environmentally forward-thinking, cationic solution seems to have almost limitless potential use in industrial processes across the U.S., and eventually around the globe.
“Our customers have not had a non-toxic, biodegradable alternative for their processes before chitosan,” Kasberg said. “All of these industries are under regulatory scrutiny to change. Chitosan is a 100% biodegradable, biocompatible tool for them.”
“In water treatment, the cationic charge of chitosan binds to a lot of pollutants in stormwater or wastewater, so they can be filtered and removed,” Kasberg explained. “The Department of Ecology here in Washington almost requires you to use chitosan now if you are discharging into the environment. So this has application on construction stormwater sites, for example. For wastewater, everything from power plants to manufacturers of almost any product generates wastewater that needs to be treated.”
This alone represents hundreds of thousands of potential users across the U.S.
“What’s really profound is the application rate,” Kasberg said. “What we’re displacing — non-biodegradable, aluminum-based coagulants, metal-based coagulants — what we’ve found is that we’re able to treat the same water with about a 1% chitosan solution that would typically require a 40% to 50% an aluminum-based metal coagulant solution. For perspective, about one gallon of a 1% chitosan solution will, on average, treat about 10,000 gallons of wastewater. Here in Whatcom County, we can make up to 54 metric tons per day of liquid chitosan solutions, which can treat about 150 million gallons of water, and that chitosan displaces an incredible amount of aluminum-based coagulant.”
In textiles, chitosan has at least three uses.
“One is as an anti-microbial and anti-fungal agent,” Kasberg said. “It doesn’t kill bacteria, it’s benign, but its positive charge sticks to them, and then they can’t replicate. It’s not a sanitizer, like bleach or alcohol, but if you treat a textile with it, then it inhibits the growth of microorganisms. Industries like GM, for example, need everything in their vehicles to be mold- and mildew-resistant without being toxic.”
Chitosan is also an effective flame retardant.
“Chitosan displaces a lot of halogenated chemicals like iodine, bromine and chlorine, which inhibit flames from spreading. That’s really important on furniture, mattresses and carpets. So we’re displacing a lot of toxic flame retardants with a natural biodegradable product.”
A third use of chitosan in textiles is as a natural binder for organic dyes.
“Chitosan is replacing heavy metals in the process that binds the dye to the yarn or fabric,” Kasberg said. “That industry is growing like crazy, and we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
Tidal Vision recently built a liquid chitosan blending facility in South Carolina that hydrates dry chitosan from Whatcom County into finished formulas that are used by Leigh Fibers, a textile fiber recycler, and distributed to other textile companies in the region.
Those allergic to shellfish need not worry either.
“Chitosan is hypoallergenic and doesn’t contain the proteins that elicit that response,” Kasberg said. “We’re testing every batch of all of our products to ensure there are no detectable levels of allergens, to set a high standard for the industry and to reassure our customers.”
Chitosan also has a couple of applications in the agriculture industry.
“The main value is that chitosan is an elicitor,” Kasberg said. “Remember chitin is in the exoskeleton of insects and the outer cell wall of fungi. When chitosan is sprayed onto a plant, it elicits a response as if the plant is being attacked by a fungus or an insect, and so it stimulates their defense pathways. When plants do that before a fungal outbreak or before an insect infestation, you give them that head start — it’s almost analogous to giving them a vaccine. So you avoid a big outbreak that then you have to treat with toxic pesticides.”
Kasberg reports that more than 400 agriculture companies have reached out to Tidal Vision about potential chitosan applications.
“That industry is so desperate for better options,” he said. “All these pesticides, insecticides and fungicides have growing resistance issues. That means they have to use more and more pesticides to get the desired effect. Chitosan has been shown not to contribute to that problem because of its natural mode of action.”
The bright, brilliant future of chitosan and Tidal Vision
Not surprisingly, Tidal Vision is growing and hiring.
“Our team is now around 30, and about 90% of those are here in Whatcom County,” Kasberg said. “We hope to be closer to 50 by the end of 2022. We’re planning to hire at least two positions a month across the board in sales, marketing communications, finance, QA/QC, and product testing in our laboratory team.”
Although the business remains in the U.S. for the moment, Tidal Vision is poised to expand to international markets.
“We’ll probably build a liquid blending plant internationally in 2022 or 2023,” Kasberg said. “There are other markets for chitosan that we aren’t pursuing because we’re focusing on the areas where we can make the biggest environmental impact. And not just because that sounds good or makes us feel good. We believe it’s just good business.” ■