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Silicon Valley startup turns carbon emissions into protein

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NovoNutrients says it is solving two problems at once thanks to its synthetic biology process that allows it to produce nutritious, food-grade protein from industrial carbon emissions.

The gas fermentation process uses feedstocks that are available on a massive scale at low cost, and the technology gives CO2 emitters a financial incentive to capture their carbon as it becomes a product they can sell.

The Silicon Valley startup calculates that the annual CO2 emissions of a large cement plant could generate protein flour worth three billion dollars, equivalent to 330 million bushels of soy, or the annual soy production of the US state of Nebraska.

How it works

Just as brewers make beer starting with the right mix of grains and water in which fermentation can take place, NovoNutrients starts off by creating an aqueous solution that contains all the elements needed for its microbes to grow via cell division, the startup’s CEO, David Tze, tells Fi Global Insights. Each cell is NovoNutrient’s final product and contains 73% crude protein on a dry weight basis with an amino acid profile similar to meat.

The company takes carbon dioxide, oxygen, and hydrogen and dissolves them in water along with nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sulphur, and other elements that it sources from inorganic mineral salts. In this medium, it can grow the microbes in bioreactors, achieving a density of 200 g per litre in laboratory conditions – more than enough to be commercially viable, according to Tze. This is continuously harvested from the liquid by filtration or centrifugation.

After drying, texturizing and sterilising the whole cell bacterial meal, the final product is a neutral to nutty, umami-like flavour and a light brown-beige colour. It is also non-GMO and available in a variety of formats, including powder and pellets. Using different bacterial strains, NovoNutrients can also make low volume, high value ingredients such as carotenoids.

In Japan, the startup has licenced several microbial strains. “By using five species instead of one, we make best use of the resources and it also allows us to fine tune the nutritional quality. We determine all this with our partner,” Tze says.

Clean label and safety concerns

Asked whether the presence of pollutants and contaminants could pose a safety risk, Tze says this depends on the source of the CO2; some are cleaner than others. Industrial ethanol production, for instance, produces high purity carbon dioxide, most of which is already used by the food industry to carbonate fizzy drinks. Other potential sectors that NovoNutrients could source CO2 from are the cement and paper & pulp industries.

According to the tech startup, many compounds that are considered environmental pollutants, such as hydrogen sulphides, carbon monoxide and methane, are ‘remediated’ during its fermentation process because the microbes break them down.

However, the microbes cannot break down elemental contaminants such as heavy metals. The startup’s principal selection criterium when sourcing waste gases will be to ensure they do not contain contaminants such as mercury or lead that would then enter the food chain, Tze says. In fact, the company says that current fish feed made from ground, wild-caught fish is more likely to contain contaminants such as mercury.

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‘Consumers are becoming more comfortable with microbial protein’

Even once food safety issues have been dealt with, how easy is it to market ‘food derived from microbes fed on industrial carbon emissions’?

Tze believes there is a positive story in capturing CO2 emissions and transforming them into a nutritious, sustainable protein. However, as a B2B supplier, NovoNutrients is not overly concerned with consumer perception or how the protein might be labelled on an ingredient list. It is currently partnering with companies that will use the protein in fish feed and, Tze says, rainbow trout love the taste and don’t mind where their food comes from.

Nutreco-owned Skretting, the world’s biggest fish feed manufacturer, recently chose NovoNutrients to test its products at Skretting’s Aquaculture Research Centre facilities, with the view of inking a procurement deal.

Regarding consumer acceptance in food, Tze believes it will come over time. The synthetic biology company predicts food companies will begin to use its protein in very small inclusion rates, blending it with other sources of protein such as soy or pea, slowly building up familiarity. This also aligns with its timeframe for scaling up; NovoNutrients can currently supply several kilos of samples to interested manufacturers but plans to increase capacity to hundreds of kilos or tons at its pilot plant in 2021.

“A lot of progress is being made with companies like Nature’s Fynd and White Dog Labs, and a rising tide raises all boats. All developments are making consumers more comfortable with microbial protein and, ultimately, many decisions at the supermarket and restaurant get made because of the price,” Tze says.

“Low cost, high performance will trump temporary consumer preferences. We are already seeing a massive shift in what people are familiar with i.e., eating meat or soy protein supplemented with heme grown by genetically modified yeast. People are mostly like, ‘this tastes great, it doesn’t slaughter animals and I can afford to buy a plant-based Whopper as well as a beef one.”

“There are always reactionary forces who only want organic produce but with eight billion people on the planet, how many will be willing to eat microbial protein on daily basis? We think that number is quite high.”

The startup is currently engaging with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Japan, where its initial licence will operate, for regulatory approval. It also plans to apply for novel food and GRAS status in Europe and the US, and is in the process of gathering the data that will be required by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to this end.

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