Innovative Consortium to create sustainable protein source from CO2

June 28, 2023

The consortium will benefit from the Novo Nordisk Foundation fund in a groundbreaking initiative with €27M investment

In a significant development towards addressing global challenges of food insecurity and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, a consortium of companies and university researchers has embarked on a mission to create a sustainable source of proteins for human food derived from CO2.

With the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Novo Nordisk Foundation, this ambitious initiative aims to revolutionise food production and combat hunger on a global scale.

The pressing issue of food insecurity is escalating, as highlighted in a recent UN-led report revealing that over 250 million people experienced severe hunger in 2022, a staggering increase of 65 million compared to the previous year. To counteract this trend, it is imperative to establish a sustainable, safe, and stable food production system capable of feeding a growing world population.

To this end, the consortium brings together the expertise of Novozymes A/S and Topsoe A/S, leading companies in biotechnology and chemical engineering respectively, alongside Washington University in St Louis in the US and the Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center (CORC) at Aarhus University in Denmark. The two foundations are collectively investing up to €27 million (DKK 200 million) to propel this groundbreaking endeavour.

“By utilising CO2 for food production without relying on agricultural land use, this ambitious consortium tackles two of our most significant global challenges – providing nutritious food to a growing population and mitigating climate change. This has the potential to pave the way for a novel bio-economy, fostering a more sustainable, safe, and stable food production system while reducing the strain on our natural resources in multiple ways,” remarks Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

The fundamental concept revolves around developing a more sustainable method of producing proteins through fermentation, an age-old food production technique. Leveraging biological and electrochemical processes, the consortium partners will harness CO2 and convert it into acetate, a familiar substance present in the metabolism of microorganisms used in fermentation. This acetate can then serve as a foundation for producing proteins directly for human consumption.

By offering alternatives to animal proteins, this innovative approach can reduce the reliance on meat and dairy production, which places substantial burdens on our environment through land usage and crop cultivation for animal feed. Furthermore, the utilisation of CO2-derived acetate in the fermentation process eliminates the need for sugar, a significant component in conventional fermentation methods. Consequently, substantial agricultural areas currently dedicated to sugar production can be repurposed.

This conversion of CO2 into acetate and its subsequent use in protein production signifies a groundbreaking opportunity to decouple a portion of our food production from land use, creating space for biodiversity. Such a development represents a momentous stride towards building a more sustainable society.

The initial phase of the consortium’s work focuses on optimising and evaluating three potential production technologies, aiming to reach a demonstration scale within two years. The consortium partners possess an array of relevant production technologies and facilities, enabling them to capitalise on existing infrastructure for verifying and scaling the new developments, resulting in accelerated upscaling processes and synergy across the different technologies involved.

Claus Crone Fuglsang, Chief Science Officer in Novozymes A/S, expresses his enthusiasm, stating: “The possibility of using biology to efficiently produce protein for human nutrition from simple raw materials has existed for some time. This programme provides an opportunity to develop a completely climate-neutral method of transforming CO2 into protein without the need for land, water, and fertiliser. I am excited and proud that our technology and know-how can enable this transformation, as it holds tremendous potential for addressing major global challenges.”

Once the technologies are scaled up for production, they have the potential to revolutionise the approach to food security, particularly in low- and lower-middle-income countries. These technologies are said to be projected to produce sufficient protein for over one billion people annually, establishing a stable source of nutritious food for regions with limited potential for conventional agriculture.

An essential objective for the two foundations is to ensure global dissemination of the technologies at an affordable price, particularly in countries where they can have the greatest impact. Global access agreements with the consortium partners will safeguard this equitable distribution.

“The technologies offer significant potential to enhance global food security, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. It is crucial that these technologies can be implemented in areas where they can have the greatest benefit, at a fair cost. This is ensured through the establishment of this consortium,” concludes Thomsen.

The consortium activities are equally funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports activities at Novozymes A/S and Washington University in St Louis, while the Novo Nordisk Foundation funds activities at Topsoe A/S and the Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center (CORC) at Aarhus University. The total budget for the consortium is €27 million (DKK 200 million), covering a two-year period. Further support may be provided if the project progresses successfully, allowing for the continued development and maturation of these innovative technologies.

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