Pro­fes­sor us­ing sol­dier flies to help pro­tect en­vi­ron­ment

The waste-eat­ing in­sects help cut emis­sions and are used as a raw­ma­te­rial for avi­a­tion fuel

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA - By LIUKUNin Wuhan and HOULIQIANG in Bei­jing Con­tact the writ­ers at houliqiang@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Most peo­ple con­sider univer­sity pro­fes­sors to have “de­cent” work­ing con­di­tions. How­ever, Zhang Jibin, a mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Huazhong Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity in Wuhan, cap­i­tal of Hubei prov­ince, might beg to dif­fer.

His lab­o­ra­tory is set on top of a build­ing , where the foul smell of rot­ten kitchen waste fills the air.

Zhang of­ten has to work for more than 10 hours a day, care­fully study­ing sol­dier flies, which feed on rot­ten food and an­i­mal fe­ces.

Af­ter feed­ing on waste and then be­ing dried, the flies can be used as a raw ma­te­rial to make fod­der, fer­til­izer and even high-end prod­ucts such as avi­a­tion fuel and cos­met­ics.

Zhang has devoted the past 12 years to re­search­ing sol­dier flies, mak­ing large-scale do­mes­ti­ca­tion and breed­ing pos­si­ble.

The 51-year-old started his re­search in 2004 af­ter he learned from his ad­viser, Yu Ziniu, in 2002 that the United States Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture was try­ing to use sol­dier flies to dis­pose of cow ma­nure and help pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment.

In China, poul­try, cow and pig breed­ing pro­duces 4 bil­lion met­ric tons of ma­nure each year. Zhang be­lieves that the sol­dier flies could help dis­pose of such ma­nure in ef­forts to meet a green­house gas emis­sions tar­get of zero. He brought the re­quired tech­nol­ogy to his lab­o­ra­tory in 2004 by co­op­er­at­ing with Jef­fery Tomber­lin, a pro­fes­sor at Texas A&M Univer­sity in the US. With more than 2,700 species in more than 380 ex­tant gen­era around the world, only a few sol­dier flies are suit­able for large-scale do­mes­ti­ca­tion and breed­ing. Zhang and his ad­viser went to Bei­jing and Fu­jian and Guang­dong prov­inces to search in ar­eas with rot­ten leaves for sol­dier fly pupa, even­tu­ally find­ing a suit­able species in Wuhan.

Stud­ies showed that the species in Wuhan have a big ap­petite and are not fussy eaters. “In one of our ex­per­i­ments, sev­eral hun­dred of the in­sects fin­ished 1.5 kg of pork and a steamed chub in just five hours,” Zhang said.

How­ever, this was just the be­gin­ning of a long jour­ney in Zhang’s re­search.

“The in­sect is un­able to cop­u­late and re­pro­duce with­out sun­light. So we need to find an al­ter­na­tive light source for their prop­a­ga­tion in win­ter when there is not much sun­light,” he said.

Af­ter ex­per­i­ment­ing with hun­dreds of light sources over a three-year pe­riod, Zhang even­tu­ally suc­ceeded in 2008, us­ing an tung­sten fil­a­ment lamp, which helped in­crease the in­sect’s spawn­ing by 80 per­cent.

Zhang’s ef­forts paid off. Shaanxi prov­ince has uti­lized sol­dier flies do­mes­ti­cated by Zhang to dis­pose of kitchen waste, with 2 tons of the in­sects at a treat­ment cen­ter in the prov­ince hav­ing eaten more than 1,500 tons of kitchen waste, Zhang said.

The in­sects have helped trans­form poul­try ma­nure into a good seller. About 50 tons of ma­nure was pro­duced ev­ery day at Wuhan Chao­tuo Eco­log­i­cal Agri­cul­ture, most of which had to be fer­mented for fer­til­izer, be­fore they brought in the in­sects in 2013.

The money made from selling the ma­nure hardly cov­ered the cost of trans­porta­tion and stor­age, said Chen Hui, the com­pany’s client man­ager.

Chen said they stop feed­ing the sol­dier flies be­fore they pu­pate, when the in­sect is rich in crude pro­tein, fat, cal­cium and phos­pho­rus.

The dried in­sects can also be sold for 6 yuan ($90 cents) per kilo­gram, and their ex­cre­ment can be sold for 350 yuan per ton, mean­ing poul­try ma­nure can cre­ate a profit of 810 yuan per ton.

Zhang said he has reached an agree­ment with a com­pany from South Amer­ica that wants to uti­lize his sol­dier flies for ma­nure treat­ment.

How­ever, the lessthan-“work­ing en­vi­ron­ment has made it dif­fi­cult for Zhang to re­cruit post­grad­u­ate stu­dents, with many said to be scared of the in­sects.

“Last year, a fe­male stu­dent of mine changed her ma­jor, stat­ing that she was al­ler­gic to the in­sect,” Zhang said, adding that he will con­tinue to work with sol­dier flies.

“Life is mar­velous. I think it’s mar­velous to look into the change of life. That’s why I am per­sis­tent and have main­tained my in­ter­est in the in­sect for more than a decade,” he said.

LIU KUN / CHINA DAILY

Pro­fes­sor Zhang Jibin at work in his lab­o­ra­tory at Huazhong Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity in Wuhan.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A sol­dier fly Zhang Jibin has been re­search­ing.

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