Waste on my plate: Startups making protein food from landfill gas
If this agro start-up has its way, we may have the gas from the waste-landfills as some solid food on our plates. String Bio in Bengaluru is turning methane from the waste landfills into edible protein.
The idea is not new
Calysta Inc in California, a biotechnology firm, has also separately discovered ways to turn methane into protein.
What’s the idea?
A liquid containing the methane gas is fed to the bacteria found in soil. This sparks a fermentation process (similar to making beer) but unlike alcohol, protein is released into the water. This protein is then dried into a brown powder.
Can that be eaten?
The product is not ready for human consumption yet but it is already being used in animal feeds.
About the taste
The producers say that the taste is similar to whey -- a protein derived from milk.
Why alternative food source?
The companies are betting their products to help alleviate the strain of growing global population on agricultural land and oceans. Besides, the natural gas prices are trading at the lowest levels of two decades. By creating food from waste gas, it might get easier to feed the emerging economies in Africa, South America and Asia, where arable land and ocean resources are declining. The world population is expected to surge to 9.6 billion by 2050 but only 61 percent increase in food production is estimated, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The market for gas and fishmeal has also turned in favor of the scientists.
Is there enough gas?
Landfills, sewage plants and farms all produce methane gas naturally. When the organic matter decomposes, the emanating gas can be captured and transported to a facility. Secondly, the amount of methane from such sources is very small and cannot support a large plant.
Where the natural gas prices are trading at their lowest since 1999 at $1.639 per million thermal units the ‘Peruvian fishmeal’ -- a common source of protein for livestock and shrimps -- has more than doubled to $1.092 per tonne from $373.16 per tonne. Natural gas is transforming the world economy at the moment because of its relative cheapness to oil and other forms of carbon. The gas-protein may provide a sustainable replacement for fishmeal.
About String Bio
String Bio is an Indian startup based in Bengaluru. It has won $200,000 as Indian government grants so far. Currently, String Bio is seeking funding from investors to commercialize its technology. It is producing a few kilograms of protein a month. Local suppliers deliver canisters of methane. The startup feeds it to bacteria. The fermentation produces wet protein clumps that are dried to obtain a powder. Then it is sent to poultry and fish farmers for testing. “You just mix the protein with regular feed and feed it to animals,” says Subbian, a synthetic biologist who worked on developing fuels and chemicals from plants. She adds, “I envision us purifying it further where it could be ready for human consumption.” [irp]