The researchers brewing lipids to transform waste into food

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Researchers are exploring the utilization of corn husk waste for value-added end applications. Image: Getty/Matauw
Researchers are exploring the utilization of corn husk waste for value-added end applications. Image: Getty/Matauw

Related tags Food waste Lipid Fermentation

Researchers say they are using ancient technology to turn agricultural waste into fats. They say the approach could help the sustainable protein industry recreate the flavours of meat and has the potential to replace palm oil or other tropical oils.

Researchers are embracing an ancient technology to turn agricultural waste 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 start-ups, large companies and even governments understand the process of transforming waste products into food. They say there is huge potential to use existing infrastructure, which would otherwise turn food crops into fuel, to scale up this process.

The team uses a two-step process. Firstly they will turn discarded parts of crops – like corn husks – into a gas, which can in a second step be used to feed microbes in a fermentation process that produces lipids. They hope 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 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 products and different processes – such as using the raw biogas initially produced through anaerobic digestion to feed the microbes or converting biogas 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.”

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.”

Regarding the approval of the technology, in Europe, it would require a green light from the European Food Safety Authority. This is because the production route of lipids/biomass would be novel, as well as the microorganisms. In either case of both lipids and biomass these would fall under the category of novel products under EFSA regulation. 

Tropical oil replacement?

While they say the approach could help the sustainable protein industry recreate the flavours of meat, it has the potential to replace palm oil or other tropical oils, they added.

“This will depend on fatty acid profiles of our microorganisms,” said Dorian. “Some microorganisms that we are modelling have a potential to have a similar fatty acid profile to palm oil or other tropical oils. However, potential to replace them with our microbial oils is something that we will investigate during our project.”

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.

The one-year project was funded by Good Food Institute (GFI), an international NGO working to advance new ways of making meat. 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.” 

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