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Reimagining carbon dioxide: a pollution solution

Reimagining carbon dioxide: a pollution solution

By 2050, the earth’s population will be over ten billion people. Managing resources for a third more people presents a myriad of challenges, not least how to feed a growing population without producing harmful emissions that could cause environmental catastrophe. New approaches are needed – and three Nottingham alumni believe they have a potential solution to tackle at least part of this problem. Deep Branch Biotechnology was founded in 2018 by Bart Pander, Pete Rowe and Rob Mansfield after the idea sparked during their PhDs together at the University’s Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SBRC). The biotech start-up delivers a unique solution to two major environmental problems – how to produce food sustainably and how to reduce emissions – by taking carbon dioxide directly from industrial emissions and converting it into protein. In under a year, the company has established itself as an innovator in the field, culminating in recognition on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Europe list. We spoke to Bart, Pete and Rob to find out how the polluters of today can become the producers of tomorrow. 

Deep Branch Biotechnology was founded with one goal in mind: to make the biggest positive environmental impact in the shortest possible time frame,” explains Rob. “During our PhDs at Nottingham, we worked together in the field of gas-fermentation. We knew this technology was crucial in the transition from an open-ended oil-based economy to a circular one. It’s conventionally been used in green chemical production but we saw its potential in agriculture. 

“Over an intense two-month period, we spoke to hundreds of feed producers and carbon emitters to assess what their difficulties were in relation to protein and emissions. We identified that we could kill two birds with one stone by using carbon dioxide directly from industrial processes and converting it into protein.”

With the need for a solution to address these environmental problems clear, the team developed a new process to turn carbon emissions into a resource, taking inspiration from traditional fermentation techniques. 

“We often describe our process with an analogy to wine production,” explains Bart. “When you make wine, yeast uses the sugar from grapes as a carbon and energy source to grow. When it grows, the yeast produces the desired end product, ethanol. With our process, we use a different microbe, a bacterium. This uses carbon dioxide and hydrogen as respective carbon and energy sources, and when it grows, it produces protein. 

“As a process, the way we make our protein is similar to traditional fermentation technologies such as brewing. We use a liquid medium to grow microbes in a large stainless-steel vessel. Emissions from industrial processes are cleaned and then bubbled through the liquid along with hydrogen. Once dissolved in the liquid, our bacterium can utilise the gases and produce protein within its cell. We then simply remove the protein at the same rate we introduce the gases and run the process continuously. This summer, we’ll be taking our process out of the lab in our mobile production unit, getting the gas directly from the source and using it to make protein. Following this, we’ll begin process scale-up, with the aim of generating protein at a scale of multiple tonnes per year by 2020.”

Combining scientific research with business acumen, the team have identified significant benefits for both producers and consumers, which according to Pete will give them a strong commercial edge. 

“Our route to commercial use of the technology relies upon industrial partnerships. We see the most value in the technology being deployed directly on-site with carbon intensive industries. Although taxes and tariffs incentivise carbon reduction technologies, often the costs associated have severe impacts on process economics. In contrast, we reimagine carbon dioxide as a resource rather than a waste. This gives scope for companies to generate additional revenue from emissions, rather than being penalised for them, while reducing their carbon footprint. 

“The protein that is produced through our process offers significant sustainability benefits over virtually any other protein source. We can tailor the nutritional profile of our microbes to meet the nutritional requirements of the end consumer. In the aquaculture sector, for instance, the main source of dietary protein is fishmeal. Fishmeal is made from ocean-caught fish and contributes significantly to overfishing and loss of biodiversity in key ecosystems. If we can relieve the fishmeal issue through our protein product, it provides scope for production of animal products that do not require land or freshwater – something crucial for feeding the world’s growing population.”

Rather than being something bad for the environment, we want to show people that carbon dioxide can be used to generate valuable products in a sustainable manner

The success of Deep Branch Biotechnology in just under a year has earned Pete and Rob a place on this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list in manufacturing and industry, something the team see as a stamp of approval for their future direction. 

“It’s a real honour to be recognised for the impact we’re making. It feels a bit weird not to see Bart’s face there with us (as Bart is over 30), however, perhaps without the experience and maturity he has brought to the team we wouldn’t be recognised at all. 

“What makes the list special is often not just what people have achieved to date, but what they go on to do in future. This is how we view it. We’ve worked hard and sacrificed a lot to get to where we are today, but for us it’s always about where we are going tomorrow. Our process has potential beyond protein, and by realising that potential we can have huge environmental and economic impacts.”

Keenly focused on their future mission, the team nevertheless are deeply rooted by their connections to the University, providing an invaluable link between scientific excellence and business ambition. 

“It’s sometimes hard to take a step back and realise how far we’ve come. We’ve gone from three friends with an idea to getting full-scale lab validation of our process and using this to close investment rounds and secure big industrial partnerships. 

“Being part of the SBRC helped to shape us to who we are today. It’s an innovators playground, full of state-of-the-art equipment. But it’s the people that make the SBRC special. Professor Nigel Minton has built the centre from a small group studying pathogenic bacteria to an interdisciplinary team of over 100 people working on many innovative ways to use microbiology, from green chemical production to curing cancer. Our success demonstrates the strength of the SBRC and the University in nurturing and developing talent. Not only are we proud to tell people our roots, but our deep connections to Professor Minton’s research centre provides the stamp of scientific credibility to complement the business potential identified by Forbes. 

“Ultimately we want to be synonymous with carbon utilisation. We want to change the way carbon intensive industries view carbon dioxide. Rather than being something bad for the environment, we want to show people that it can be used as a building block to generate valuable products in a sustainable manner.”

Faye HaslamWords: Faye Haslam (History, 2012), Connect Staff Writer

Nottingham graduate, writer and speaker. Curious creative inspired by film, music, history, knowledge and big ideas. A traveller at heart, always planning the next big adventure.