Biotech firm close to scaling up fishmeal alternative made from industrial emissions

Having secured EUR 2.5 million (USD 3 million) from EU Horizon 2020 – European Innovation Council (EIC) accelerator funding – young U.K.-based carbon recycling biotechnology company Deep Branch is scaling up the development of new proteins for the aqua- and agri-feed sectors, produced from carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from industrial emissions.

Deep Branch’s new “Proton” single-cell protein is created through a fermentation process that uses microbes to convert CO2 into protein. The result is a low carbon feed ingredient with a nutritional profile comparable to fishmeal, which can be produced year-round, and at a price that’s on par with the traditional but finite marine ingredient market, but sporting a lower carbon footprint.

“Fishmeal has a big part to play in aquaculture nutrition and will continue to do so in the future," Deep Branch CEO Peter Rowe told SeafoodSource. "But ultimately, as the industry grows, we need to find new protein sources to augment that supply. The reality is that the feed ingredient sector is a commodity market, where things are priced according to their nutritional value more than anything else. This means it would be naïve for any novel ingredient producer to expect a premium."

The benefit of Deep Branch’s process, Rowe said, is that it doesn’t face the same resource requirements as other feed types.

“Unlike other ingredients, our resources are not going to be limiting. We require CO2, hydrogen, and some trace elements which are readily available,” he said. “The sky’s the limit in terms of how much we can produce. Of course, we are still going through our scale-up process – it’s not like tomorrow we could be producing on a kiloton scale, but it’s clear we are not going to be hampered by a lot of the issues seen with other solutions, particularly circular economy-based applications.”

Rowe said while alternative protein sources such as insects provide a good way of utilizing some food waste and agri-waste, resulting in high-protein meals for aquafeed use, certain waste streams may not always be available in all markets.

“You are always going to be capped by whatever the primary product is. With Proton, we are divorcing ourselves from any such reliance,” he said.

The new funding will go towards building a new facility at the Netherlands-based Brightlands Chemelot Campus, which is regarded as a hub for circular chemistry and chemical processes. Deep Branch expects this new unit to be operational by the second quarter of next year. 

It follows earlier support given to Deep Branch by the Innovate UK Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, through the REACT-FIRST project. This comprises consortium partners from industry and academia with the aim to test and optimize the ingredient in animal feed trials – ultimately seeking to tackle the global climate crisis and to work toward net zero carbon emissions in the food production industry.

“Within the next two years, Deep Branch will have worked with feed manufacturers to finalize feed formulations for both salmon and also broilers (meat-producing chickens). We will also have a more in depth understanding of the engineering requirements for further scale-up,” said Rowe.

The company anticipates that it will be producing some 100,000 metric tons (MT) of Proton per year when it’s running at full-scale production – probably by 2025. With each ton of Proton requiring two tons of CO2, the business model will see the company co-locate with industry partners, tapping off side-streams of their captured CO2 emissions.

It recently confirmed Rotterdam port in the Netherlands as a site where it will be conducting tests. It also has ongoing activities in the Humberside region of the United Kingdom.

“At these sites, you are talking tens of billions of tons of CO2. Their priority is huge scale decarbonization. So while we are not really going to make a big dent in that volume, it’s going to be efficient for us to piggyback the infrastructure that they have in place.”

While Deep Branch has only been around for two years, in its ranks it has a lot of experience and background in gas fermentation. Rowe believes it’s these assets that are largely responsible for the rapid acceleration of Proton as a concept.

Essentially, it has been developing along two parallel pipelines: Firstly, scaling-up its core technology in order that it can produce the protein in significant enough volumes to meet the demands of the animal feed producers – closely supported by the REACT-FIRST trial partners BioMar and AB Agri – and secondly, it has been working with large industrial entities, such as U.K. renewable electricity generator and bioenergy company Drax, to establish the realities associated with actually deploying its operational systems on site.

Having the feed producers involved has been a great help, Rowe said.

“They’re regularly screening lots of different protein sources, and for them, the nutritional value is key. A lot of the value that they see in Proton is not just that it has an extremely high protein content (70 percent), but that we also have a lot of the essential amino acids that are needed in fish diets. These are comparable to, if not slightly higher, than fishmeal. So, as a like for like replacement, Proton makes a lot of sense,” he said. “While we do have a reasonable lipid profile in our ingredient, one thing it doesn’t offer is omega-3s, so there’s a small cost associated in bringing those in, but there are lots of other companies doing great things in that space, for example with algae. While it’s not our biggest priority, we’re looking at what other micronutrients Proton could provide the feed industries.”

At the same time, working with the likes of Drax has been a key lesson in itself, he said, explaining that very close attention to detail was needed – learning about the variation in the output processes, what do their turnaround cycles look like, understanding essential maintenance and shutdowns, and what impacts that could have on Deep Branch in terms of CO2 supply.

“That’s where the idea of co-location with large-scale carbon sequestration infrastructure really got crystalized – where multiple companies are inputting into a carbon-capture initiative. That way you can avoid a lot of the issues relating to process variability and timing, because there is always going to be the consistent supply, volume, and quality of CO2 that we need,” Rowe said. “They are basically putting in high-spec, food-grade CO2 into their pipelines because they need it at that level of purity prior to it being stored underground. That’s great for us, and great for making sure that we are compliant with all of the current feed regulations as we move forward.”  

Photo courtesy of Deep Branch


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