The Van Trump Report

Chinese Researchers Claim Breakthrough on Making Animal Feed From Carbon Emissions

Researchers in China say they’ve perfected a process for making high-protein animal feed “out of nothing” that they claim can be used on an industrial scale. State media is hailing it as a breakthrough that could reduce the country’s dependency on imported soybeans to feed its enormous livestock industry. The Chinese agricultural ministry supported the research and the government approved the new product back in August.  

The Feed Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) says it has worked with Beijing Shoulang Biological Technology to speed up a gas fermentation process to create the “new-type protein resource”, called clostridium ethanolicum, synthesised from a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and ammonia. The agricultural ministry said that the process devised by the researchers takes only 22 seconds, though they did not provide any details on the cost of production. However, Xue Min, chief scientist of the project, also notes that the conversion efficiency of material and energy is relatively low and the final accumulated protein content is also not high.

The team has started operating a facility in northern Hebei province to turn steel-making tail gas into 5,000 metric tons of protein a year, according to state media People’s Daily. If China can industrially produce 10 million metric tons of clostridium ethanolicum protein, that would be equivalent to importing 28 million metric tons of soybeans, a fraction of China’s total feed demand. The country’s annual soybean imports currently average around 100 million metric tons.  

The best way to begin to understand this technology is to view food and fuel as somewhat interchangeable, according to Dr. Jamie Hinks, Principal Research Fellow at the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering, who is a leading researcher in the field. Fuel is material that contains energy that can be used to do useful work, whether that be in a machine or in an organism. The fuel humans consume, and which we call food, is of biological origin and, in simplistic terms, is made up of either plant or animal biomass. From a microbe’s point of view, anything that contains energy is a potential source of food. Single-cell organisms consume an array of energy sources including ones that are not of biological origin such as industrial waste gases like methane and CO2.

To be clear, the Chinese scientists didn’t pioneer the concept of growing protein using carbon waste gases. Several startups around the world are working on similar products. One of those is U.S.-headquartered Calysta, which produces fish feed from naturally occurring microbes that use methane as an energy source. Calysta is currently building its first facility to produce its protein feed ingredient, FeedKind, in China. Calysta and Cargill, one of its biggest investors, announced a partnership to construct an $85 million protein plant in Tennessee several years back, though the project seems to have stalled. Another firm, British biotech company Deep Branch, utilizes CO2 and hydrogen to generate Proton, a single-cell protein optimized for animal nutrition. It has signed a deal to use CO2 captured at the power plants of British energy giant Drax. (Sources: Reuters, International Science Council, Feed Navigator)

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