Singapore is set to receive a local boost from a high-tech farm in satiating its appetite for prawns.
The vertical farm, which expects its first harvest by March next year, will focus on rearing the popular vannamei prawns, also known as pacific white shrimp, king prawn and "bai xia".
These tropical prawns are greyish-white and sweet, with a firm texture.
Universal Aquaculture will be housed in a 1,300 sq m warehouse in Tuas South Link. Work on the facility, which will comprise 33 sets of a unique tank cluster, begins next month.
Each cluster has a pair of three rectangular tanks stacked atop one another, with a pipe running between the tanks.
One tank at the base of the cluster will be a water treatment tank, while the other five will house the prawns, with about 1,400 in each tank.
Each cluster will then be stacked, creating a matrix of tanks in the single-storey facility.
"Each cluster runs independently, and we don't share water between them to prevent cross-contamination. If one set has issues, the others will not be affected," said Universal Aquaculture chief executive Jeremy Ong.
Each tank in a cluster can house other prawn species and fishes such as tilapia and sea bass, based on the demand for them, he added.
The first warehouse can produce about 44 tonnes of prawns annually, and the company plans to lease more warehouses to yield 400 tonnes by 2022, which would make it one of the biggest producers here.
Last year, Singapore imported more than 35,000 tonnes of seafood, excluding fish. The amount produced locally was 628 tonnes. Prawns and shrimps are mainly from Malaysia.
The Republic has set a target of producing 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030 to bolster food security.
Universal Aquaculture plans to start selling its prawns by March next year. Until then, it will engage in test marketing to build up a pool of buyers, Mr Ong said, adding that there is a strong market for good quality seafood here.
He and his team of six aquaculture experts spent six years doing research and development (R&D) to perfect the farming process.
They have successfully tested their technologies in a smaller proof-of-concept farm in Kallang.
One of the outstanding R&D outcomes is a proprietary energy-saving water treatment system, which uses both mechanical and biological filtration to maintain high water quality so the prawns can thrive.
"This means that changing water in the tanks is not necessary, and the only water loss is through evaporation," said Mr Ong.
To ensure the high quality of prawns and to avoid overseas supply disruption, a hatchery and nursery will also be set up. The team believes it will be the first commercial vannamei prawn hatchery in Singapore.
The farm also has plans to expand overseas in three to five years, as the technologies and vertical farm structures are easily scalable.
Premium seafood supplier Oceanus Group, the company's investor, will be supporting its expansion plans.
Said Oceanus group chief executive and director Peter Koh: "We talked with officials from China last week and they were pretty keen to bring the system there. We are also talking to officials in the Middle East."
The system will "allow us to bring fresh seafood to places where they are less accessible", he added.