Brewing up the future: using the power of fermentation to transform waste and byproducts into sustainable food
2 February 2023
Researchers are using an ancient technology to turn agricultural byproducts into oils for food, using a process that could reduce methane emissions, improve food security and produce essential ingredients more sustainably.
Dorian Leger and Milena Ivanisevic from Connectomix Bio are leading an international team creating a toolkit that will help startups, large companies and even governments understand the process of transforming waste and byproducts into food. They say there is huge potential to use existing infrastructure, which would otherwise turn crops into fuel, to scale up this process.
The team will use a two step process. First, they will turn crop byproducts – like corn husks – into a gas, which can then be used to feed microbes in a fermentation process that produces lipids. These fatty acids can then be added to plant-based and cultivated meat to replicate the complex flavours of conventional meat.
Dorian Leger, Managing Director at Connectomix Bio, explained: “We’re building on a technology that’s existed for millennia – brewing – but the big differences are that instead of making beer we’re making lipids and instead of dedicating land to grow crops specifically for this process, we’re using renewable sources.”
Milena Ivanisevic, Scientific Project Manager at Connectomix Bio, added: “This can have important environmental advantages. If you leave agricultural waste and byproducts lying in the field it will create methane, which has a greater global warming potential than CO2. What we’re doing will capture this gas and turn it into an asset.”
Working with a large team of collaborators across Europe, the United States and Israel, the team will create a range of oils designed to add flavour to sustainable protein products, such as plant-based chicken, pork or beef.
The researchers will experiment with different waste and byproducts and different processes – such as using the raw biogas initially produced through anaerobic digestion to feed the microbes, or converting this into different types of gases and liquids – to work out which is the most economical.
These findings will then be shared with the food industry in the first publicly available techno-economic assessment analysing how this technology can be used to create fats from waste.
Milena said: “The study will also look into the potential to convert biogas into either hydrogen or methanol before fermentation. There’s a big difference between liquid and gas fermentation. It will shed light on the pros and cons of different methods, identifying where investment and research will be most beneficial.”
“We believe our research will provide motivation for new companies to enter this space, particularly biogas producers – an industry not historically engaged in sustainable food production.”
The Luxembourg-based team are collaborating with San Diego State University and Stanford in the United States, Imperial College London, University of Naples Federico II, Technical University of Denmark – DTU, Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, Canada’s Verschuren Centre, and VNG, a group of companies active in the gas sector across Europe.
Dorian added: “There are a lot of different routes we can use to get to the finished product, so we’re analysing this process carefully to work out which is best – all roads lead to Rome but some are longer and bumpier than others.”
Dr Sahar El Abbadi, Postdoctoral Researcher at Stanford, said: “There’s huge potential for biogas production, particularly in the United States, where California has incentivised it as a source of fuel production. If there is a policy shift away from that in the future, we will have a lot of existing infrastructure that could be used for this purpose.”
Gerd Woelbling, Senior Origination Manager at the VNG group, said: “This technology could provide ways of letting farmers keep doing what they’re good at, and what they’ve been doing for centuries, but in a way that improves efficiency and which could provide a host of new opportunities for them.”
The one-year project was funded by the Good Food Institute (GFI), an international NGO working to advance new ways of making meat, as part of its 2022 Research Grants Programme.
It was one of eight European projects and 21 from around the world to receive funding from the programme, which supports innovative open-access research to develop sustainable proteins.
With very little public funding dedicated to sustainable protein research and development, GFI set up the programme with the support of philanthropic donors to help fill the gap and make key findings publicly accessible.
Seren Kell, Science and Technology Manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, said: “This project will not only find new ways of developing sustainable alternatives to animal fat – crucial to delivering the flavour and mouthfeel of conventionally produced meat – it will put the information about how to do this in the public domain, which could help accelerate progress for the whole field.
“We’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible with fermentation. To deliver on their climate targets and enhance food security, governments should be stepping up to fund more open-access research into this kind of sustainable protein production.”