Hodges, Carl

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Hodges, Carl


Scientist and entrepreneur

B orn in 1937; married Elizabeth Swilling; children: four. Education: Graduated from University of Arizona, 1959.

Addresses: Office—Seawater Foundation, 4500 N. 32nd Street, Ste. 203, Phoenix, AZ 85018; Seaphire International, Inc., 4455 E. Camelback Rd., Ste. B200, Phoenix, AZ 85018.


S upervisor, Solar Energy Research Laboratory, University of Arizona, 1967-92; director, University of Arizona Environmental Research Laboratory; founded Seawater Foundation, 1977; president, Planetary Design Corporation (resigned, 1991); president and CEO of Seaphire International, 1985.


C arl Hodges has spent 40 years on the forefront of research and development focused on solving problems related to the environment. As one of the original founders of the Environmental Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona, Hodges has worked on pioneering projects for companies such as Coca-Cola, Union Carbide, and Mattel, for the governments of Abu Dhabi, Iran, and Morocco, as well as for the United States Department of Energy and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). His vision and entrepreneurship have launched programs that could stop environmental degradation while also generating much-needed income for areas of the world suffering from poverty.

Born in 1937, Hodges spent the majority of his career as the director of University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Laboratory. His studies have focused on global warming and its effects on water, arable land, fisheries and biodiversity. He graduated from the school in 1959 with a degree in atmospheric physics and a determination to help solve the problems facing the world of the future. He is married to Elizabeth Swilling, with whom he has four children.

Concerned about global warming and interested in finding alternative ways to generate revenue for impoverished nations, through the auspices of the Environmental Research Laboratory, Hodges began studying ways to use sea water to generate crops. One of the first ventures was a joint project with the University of Sonora in Mexico. In 1965, the University of Arizona and the University of Sonora constructed a desalination plant in hopes of finding an economically feasible way to remove salt from sea-water to make it useful for farming. The research facility discovered that the process was unattainable at a large scale so the desalination plant was reengi-neered as an area for cultivating shrimp. This process was found to be highly successful and was one of the first projects exported for use in other countries. In the 1980s, Hodges also helped create a teaching and research facility on the Sea of Cortez that focuses on collaboration between Mexico and the United States with regard to the natural and cultural resources of the area.

From his research, Hodges found that it was much more viable to try and find ways to use salt water rather than figuring out methods of removing the salt content from sea water. He spent many years researching and developing salt-tolerant crops. Eventually he found a combination of animals and plants that made for a viable farm operation. There are more than 20,000 miles of desert coast that could be used for Hodges’ specific kind of farming. Hodges explained to Kurt Shillinger of the Star Tribune the important contribution his work could make to the world, “If we could develop the coasts we could feed billions.”

A visionary researcher, Hodges is also a tireless entrepreneur. In 1992, Hodges retired from his work at the University of Arizona and began to focus on running his company. In 1998, his Seaphire International company signed a deal with the Eritrean government to build the first seawater farm. While the deal was easy, the initial start up was a bit rocky due to a border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Hodges showed up with the first shrimps and the seeds for the specialty crop called salicornia and immediately had to make a decision between his personal safety and following his vision. While colleagues left the country, Hodges stayed behind to take care of the baby shrimp.

The farm system built in Eritrea on the west coast of the Red Sea consists of pumps and ponds that draw seawater inland. The first pond houses shrimp; after the shrimp pond the water flows to one that grows a type of fish called tilapia. From the tilapia pond the water moves on to irrigate salicornia (also known as sea asparagus, it is a delicacy in Europe). The water then irrigates experimental groves of mangrove trees. The shrimp, tilapia, salicornia, and mangroves are all exportable and in-demand. Hodges hopes that in the long run, many of these farms all along the coasts will stem the rising seas while also solving the problem of providing food for growing populations. In 2002, Hodges reported on his company’s venture at a conference in Germany. His results led conference organizer Birgit Wirsing to comment to European Innovation, “Many people have a vision but see no way to realize it. He told us that he had thought about his vision for more than 30 years, and finally he has made it come true.”

According to the Seawater Foundation Web site, in 2003 Seawater Farms Eritrea employed more than 700 people. The farm grew enough shrimp to make large weekly shipments to Europe and the Middle East. The salicornia crops were also established and were being used to produce oils for cosmetics and cooking. A wetland that had been built to contain the farm water after it passed through all its uses had attracted more than 200 species of birds. Unfortunately, an unstable political climate led to the project being abandoned the same year that the report was issued.

Throughout his career Hodges has tirelessly inno-vated and his vision of the future has attracted the attention of other visionaries. In 1992, he served as a consultant for Biosphere 2. The project sought to create a livable, secure, and independent ecosystem for scientific study. A group of people was selected to live inside the specially created dome and attempt to survive only on what was available inside. Conflicts between those inside as well as problems with management outside led to the entire project being discredited. For the Epcot Center at Disney World’s exhibit Millennium Village, Hodges served as the consultant for the interactive exhibits for Eri-trea and Saudi Arabia. Built in 1999, the Millennium Village was a temporary exhibit built as part of Disney World’s celebration of the new millennium.

In 2005, based on the success of his Seawater Farms Eritrea, Seawater Foundation was awarded a $5 million contract by the World Bank Group to establish a mangrove tree farm in Mexico. The joint project between the government of Mexico, the University of Sonora, and the Seawater Foundation would also explore the viability of building a farm similar to the one built in Eritrea. In 2007, the success of the project led to a profile of Hodges in the green issue of Vanity Fair, which concluded, “By injecting life into the earth’s proliferating desert landscapes, projects like the seawater farms of Carl Hodges may turn out to be just the kind of magic act the world sorely needs.”



African Business (London, England), October 2002, p. 54.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), March 18, 2001, p. 4A.


“Academic entrepreneurship—what works,” European Innovation, http://cordis.europa.eu/aoi/article.cfm?article=190&lang=EN (July 2, 2007).

“The Future’s Farmer,” Vanity Fair,http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2007/04/hodges200704 (August 2, 2007).

—Eve Hermann