New UK bioprocess could help feed the planet

A UK company has developed a new biotechnology process to produce mycoprotein – the main ingredient in Quorn – cheaper than ever before and with zero waste.

(Credit: Daniel Neville via flickr)
Mycoprotein-based ‘meat’ (Credit: Daniel Neville via flickr)

3f bio is a technology spinout from the University of Strathclyde. Its patented technique involves integrating the production of bioethanol with the fermentation of mycoprotein. The current method for producing mycoprotein uses glucose as a feedstock, whereas 3f bio’s process uses a feedstock produced in the bioethanol refinery process.

“In the integrated 3f process, by integrating this into a biorefinery, the aim is to access the cheapest source of a sugar feedstock, and we take a sidestream of wheat hydrolysate as the new feedstock,” Jim Laird, 3f bio’s CEO and commercial director, told The Engineer.

“Within the current fermentation process for mycoprotein, there are relatively high costs associated with processing waste which contains unprocessed sugars and proteins. In an integrated process, this ‘waste’ is fed back into the biorefinery and will be fully processed into either fuel or feed.”

That current process is carried out exclusively by Quorn, where Laird previously worked as international director. The UK company’s meat-free products have grown in popularity in recent years, with people embracing alternative sources of protein for a variety of reasons, including the environmental impact of livestock farming as well as its ethical implications. But the patent for mycoprotein expired in 2010, opening the door for new players to enter the market. 3f bio’s new process looks set to capitalise on this, producing mycoprotein at a fraction of the cost of Quorn’s process.

Jim Laird portrait
Jim Laird

“The technology was developed in the University of Strathclyde, who have extensive experience in this area and equally driven by the two founders who have extensive industrial experience of large scale engineering projects and of driving efficiency into large-scale processes,” said Laird.

“Following development and exemplification over 2013/14, the patent application was submitted in 2014. Subsequently, 3f bio was established as a spin-out company in 2015 and, after initial funding was secured, the business commenced operation with three employees to progress the feasibility and proof of concept in April 2016.”

The company is also an active member of Glasgow’s Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), and the first user of its Rapid Bioprocess Prototyping Centre. According to Laird, access to the centre has enabled the technology to develop from the lab to industrial scale at a much faster rate than would have been achieved otherwise.

“It provides the much-needed resources for scale-up facilities,” he said, “critical for a start-up not having the capital spend for equipment.”

Quorn meat-free chicken nuggets (Credit: Angie Six via flickr)
Quorn meat-free chicken nuggets (Credit: Angie Six via flickr)

Laird can’t go into current commercial discussions for confidentiality reasons but admits that teaming up with Quorn would make a lot of sense.

“As Quorn is the sole current commercialisation of mycoprotein, and as all of Quorn’s mycoprotein is produced in the UK, we see a strong commercial rationale that 3f’s supply of mycoprotein from future sites outside of the UK would be an attractive solution to support Quorn’s international growth agenda,” he said.

“More broadly, the opportunity from 3f myoprotein creates a genuine global solution for healthy protein. The cost of 3f mycoprotein is targeted to be less than half of the cost of Quorn mycoprotein and a quarter of the cost of beef. The low level of CO2 emissions, substantially greater feed conversion ratio, low land and water use and advantaged costs make 3f mycoprotein a solution for global populations.”