Protein-producing microbes to reduce CO2 emissions

Article by Amanda Jasi

DRAX is partnering with startup Deep Branch Biotechnology (DBB) on a new bioenergy carbon capture usage and storage (BECCUS) project which could help to reduce emissions from the agricultural sector by using microbes to produce proteins for animal feed.

In its Net Zero report the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) highlighted agriculture as one of the sectors making slow progress to reduce emissions. The BECCUS project could help to reduce emissions. It will use captured carbon dioxide (CO2) to create a sustainable single-cell protein that could replace soy and fishmeal, the conventional protein sources for livestock and fish feed.  


According to DBB’s CEO Peter Rowe, the method developed to produce proteins from CO2 relies on an edible microbe that consumes CO2. On consuming CO2, the microbes grow and reproduce, allowing them to be continually harvested for protein whilst maintaining growing culture. Under optimal conditions the microbes produce up to 70% protein.

Drax and DBB are working on a feasibility study to investigate using the CO2 emissions from the Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire, UK to make proteins for sustainable animal feed products. The project will extract flue gases from the power station’s world-first bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) pilot project to feed the microbes. The single cell proteins produced will be used in fish food and other sustainable animal feeds.

A DBB pilot plant will be located within Drax’s dedicated Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) Incubation Area at its power station. The Incubation Area was created at the station to give other technology companies the opportunity to test processes using Drax’s captured CO2. The project with DBB will be the first incubation project exploring the market for CO2.

The pilot will be underway in Q3, when a demonstration plant will be installed in the CCUS Incubation Area. It aims to produce 100 kg of protein for sustainable feedstocks. The protein produced will be used in a trial project with a major feed producer.

If the project is successful DBB intends to build a larger production facility by 2020, capable of producing “several tons of protein per year”.

The project aims to help meet the anticipated increase in global demand for meat products. Global markets for single-cell proteins could be worth £9bn (US$11.2bn) by 2023.

Rowe said: “Meat production is set to double by 2050 as global populations increase, but using existing methods of producing animal feeds to meet this growing demand is completely unsustainable.

“The technology we’ve developed is an exciting solution. We can convert up to 60-70% of CO2 into protein, helping to both minimise the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere during power generation and other industrial processes, whilst producing protein for animal feeds which will help reduce the impact of agricultural sectors on the environment as well.”

Will Gardiner, CEO of Drax Group, said: “By giving partners like Deep Branch Biotechnology access to our CCUS Incubation Area we can test emerging technologies and explore their potential in delivering for both the climate and the economy.

“We want to create a cleaner environment for future generations whilst generating new jobs and export opportunities for British businesses. Technologies like this could enable some of our more difficult-to-decarbonise sectors, like agriculture, to make positive changes to address the climate crisis.”

Chris Skidmore, Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, said: “Carbon capture, usage and storage technologies are not only putting fizz in our drinks but feeding fish too.

“As we move towards net zero emissions and end our contribution to global warming, innovative projects like this will help reduce agricultural emissions and meet increasing demand for animal feed, demonstrating the enormous global potential CCUS has to tackle climate change.”

In addition to helping to reduce emissions from the agricultural sector, this project could also reduce the impact on ecosystems of feed production. For example, the aquaculture (farmed fish) industry has boomed due to concerns about overfishing, but the industry itself uses more than 15% of ocean-caught fish in feed. DBB’s proteins could help reduce the amount of fish removed from the sea. 

Using bacteria to make protein for animal feed was first considered in the 1970s and is now more economically viable as producing fishmeal powder by milling and drying fish parts has become more expensive and has not kept up with growing consumer demand for fish.

Carbon capture at Drax Power Station

The Drax Power Station is the biggest renewable electricity generator in the UK and it is the largest decarbonisation project in Europe, having converted two-thirds of its units from coal to sustainable biomass. The company finished conversion on the fourth of its six power generating units last year, keeping the company on track to being coal free by the UK Government’s deadline of 2025.

Foreground (L-R): Andy Koss (Drax) and Chris Rayner (C-Capture). Middleground (L-R): Eva Penalver Garcia (Drax) and Rose McCarthy (C-Capture). Background (L-R): Carl Clayton (Drax) and Caspar Schoolderman (C-Capture).

Drax announced in February that it had begun capturing CO2 from its world-first BECCS project, using technology developed by a spinout from the University of Leeds, C-Capture. It is currently capturing 1 t/d of CO2

Drax is exploring the feasibility of BECCUS technologies to help reduce emissions further and contribute to UK climate targets. Since starting its BECCS pilot project, the company has been in talks with several industries about using its CO2 in their processes. For example, Drax has held discussions with the British Beer and Pub Association about the possibility of using captured CO2 to carbonate drinks.

Last month Drax and C-Capture received £5m in funding from the UK Government towards its £11.1m project to scale up C-Capture’s technology for bioenergy and CCS at the Drax Power Station. It was one of nine projects to receive funding. Once scaled up, the BECCS pilot could be capturing 16m t/d of CO2 from Drax’s four biomass generating units.

Another Drax carbon capture project was announced recently. In May, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Equinor and National Grid Ventures to explore the possibility of a large-scale CCUS network and hydrogen production facility in the Humber region.

The UK CCC’s Net Zero report states that BECCS could be generating 173 TWh of electricity by 2050, capturing up to 51 Mt of CO2 – “around half of the remaining carbon in the economy that the UK will need to capture to become ‘net zero’”.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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