In several current projects the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (acib) has set itself the goal of developing solutions to combat climate change and the insecurity of food and feed supplies. One of these focuses on a novel carbon utilization process that converts the harmful greenhouse gas CO2 into high-quality protein.
An chemolithotrophic organism called Cupriavidus necator is used in this process. These bacteria are able to use CO2 as their sole carbon source, thus completely eliminating the need for sugar or other organic substances from agricultural production as a carbon source. For the implementation of the process, the bacterium only needs hydrogen. At the end of the process, C. necator can store up to 80% of high-quality protein in its biomass – in an environmentally friendly and space-saving manner.
Impact and benefits
The researchers plan to implement concrete applications on an industrial scale. To this end, the Styrian company Econutri, which emerged from acib, was founded in 2021. The goal is to couple bioreactors with large-scale industrial plants in order to use CO2 from waste gases from industrial plants, for example. A pilot reactor currently in operation is laying the necessary foundations for an economical bioprocess. Subsequently, the findings are to be used in the planning of a large-scale plant in order to be able to produce proteins on a multi-ton scale in the next few years.
The proteins produced can be fed directly to animals, including fish, chickens and pigs. The process helps avoid polluting oceans or land areas because the feed is produced directly in the bioreactor. It could also provide an additional, alternative form of food production that does not require cultivation or grazing land and uses fewer resources. Since agriculture currently releases up to 37 percent of all man-made greenhouse gases – especially factory farming and the climate killer it produces, methane, a gas 25 times more harmful than CO2 – researchers are thinking about producing different protein products for human nutrition. Examples include protein supplements but also special foods for people with special nutritional needs. The basic technology could also be used in the future to produce environmentally friendly bioplastics.