Drax: Ground-breaking carbon recycling project launches

By Drax | August 05, 2020

REACT-FIRST is the U.K.’s first-ever scalable route to the sustainable generation of protein capturing the carbon dioxide from bioenergy generation. It launches with financial support from the government in the form of £3 million funding from Innovate U.K. and will contribute to meeting the U.K.’s Net Zero climate change commitment as well as to the circular economy.

REACT-FIRST is led by carbon recycling biotechnology company Deep Branch, which has pioneered a process that uses microbes to convert carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and turns them into high-value proteins.

The project launches with the first-of-its-kind, end-to-end value-chain-wide consortium of 10 industry and academic partners, which all share a commitment to tackling the global climate crisis and the goal of achieving neutral / negative carbon emissions. The members of the REACT-FIRST consortium are:

  • Deep Branch – experts in recycling industrial CO2 into cost-competitive protein for high-value, sustainable animal feed;
  • Drax – the U.K.’s largest single site renewable electricity generator and pioneer of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS);
  • BioMar – one of the world’s largest aquafeed producers;
  • AB Agri – a global agri-food business and leading producer of monogastric feed;
  • Sainsbury’s – recognised as world’s best sustainable seafood retailer in 2017;
  • Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) – a network of 100+ key stakeholders from the aquaculture industry;
  • Synthetic Biology Research Centre, University of Nottingham (SBRC Nottingham) – the world-leading gas fermentation research group;
  • The Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling – the U.K.’s leading aquaculture research centre;
  • Nottingham Trent University, School of Animal Rural and Environmental Sciences – experts in assessing sustainable poultry production;
  • Innogen, University of Edinburgh – experts in value chain integration and responsible innovation.

Commenting on the significance of the REACT-FIRST project, Peter Rowe, CEO of Deep Branch, explains, “Currently, most animal feed protein sources are imported from overseas, making the U.K. dependent on complicated and fragile supply chains. REACT-FIRST has been created to focus solely on addressing this problem.

“Projects like REACT-FIRST are key to help the industry move towards achieving net-zero emissions. Its solution uses the technology developed by Deep Branch, but whilst this has huge transformative potential, commercialization is not possible without cooperation with key stakeholders across the value chain. REACT-FIRST addresses this, with its consortium of industrial and academic organizations, and even though relationships within these verticals are well established, the project represents the first time that the resources and expertise of all parties have been unified towards a single goal.”

The work of REACT-FIRST centres around the use of microbes to convert COdirectly from industrial emissions into high-value products, specifically a totally novel, new type of single-cell protein, or SCP, called Proton produced by Deep Branch. “This is used in fish and poultry feed and represents a new way of generating more sustainable animal feeds,” says Rowe.

“REACT-FIRST will obtain critical data about cost, digestibility, nutritional quality and carbon footprint of Proton. Each of the project’s partners is playing an active role in the development of the process and generation of this critical data, harnessing their involvement and shared knowledge in the field of carbon emissions, the production supply chain, and ground-breaking biotechnology and technology, to create sustainable protein feed sources that will contribute to reducing the environmental impact of meat production systems.”

Speaking about the REACT-FIRST project, Science Minister Amanda Solloway said, “To protect our environment and meet our world-leading target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, we must harness the very best of U.K. innovation across all sectors, supporting the most creative and pioneering ideas.

“From robotics assisting our farmers in fruit picking, to technology that converts CO2-to clean animal feed, the incredible and cutting-edge projects we are backing today represent the future of farming. Working with the best of British science, we are accelerating the transition to net zero food production, boosting jobs and productivity and driving forward the U.K.’s economic recovery.”

Melanie Welham, Executive Director, BBSRC, part of U.K. Research and Innovation, adds:

“This project, and others like it will help increase U.K. agricultural productivity and global competitiveness. At UKRI our aim is to turnthe food production sector into a beacon of innovation. Brilliant ideas like this one go a long way to making food production more sustainable, efficient and less carbon intensive but they need support to get them from the drawing board to the farm.

“UKRI’s funding programme for this sector is ongoing. In our current funding round we’ve awarded funding to 9 innovative companies. In the future we encourage businesses to come forward with fresh ideas to help U.K. agriculture.”

REACT-FIRST partners:

Drax Group last year announced its world-leading ambition to be carbon negative by 2030 by using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), and has been working with Deep Branch to explore the feasibility of using its carbon dioxide emissions to make proteins for sustainable animal feed products.

Through the REACT-FIRST project, Drax is providing further support through its expertise in site integration and CO2 lifecycle analysis, as Drax Group’s Chief Innovation Officer Jason Shipstone, explains, “By working with other businesses through the REACT-FIRST consortium, together we can help more difficult to de-carbonise sectors, like agriculture, to make positive changes to address the climate crisis.”

Global innovators in high performance aquaculture feed BioMar is involved in production of trial feeds and testing of the high potential raw material Proton, focusing on sustainability, performance, digestibility and other parameters essential for fish health and growth.

Paddy Campbell, VP salmon at BioMar Group, explains, “Aquaculture is expected to double production by 2050 however to achieve this we need feeds with minimal environmental impact. The REACT-FIRST project is the first step towards the commercial development of a new potentially game-changing protein source, Proton; using new technology to capture waste CO2 and creating high-value sustainable protein suitable for the aquaculture industry.

“At BioMar we are constantly seeking innovative raw materials that don’t compete with human food production and nutrients from by-products that minimise waste. We are excited to be part of this project to see how Proton  will perform in aquaculture feed,” stated Paddy Campbell VP Salmon, BioMar Group.    

AB Agri’s role in REACT-FIRST is to complement the work of its consortium’s technology and science partners with its insights into animal feed markets, customer needs and end consumer demands. The agri-food company uses its expertise and experience to ensure end products are viable, and plays an integral role in driving a more responsible supply of protein around the world.

Valerie Schuster, strategy director at AB Agri, comments, “The world around us is changing. In the past, there has been a growing gap between the animal feed industry and end consumers, who nowadays want to know more about the meat and fish they are eating, where they come from and whether the animals they consume have been raised responsibly. In turn, the industry is obliged to share more information about the feed animals consume, where it comes from, and how we do more with less to meet the needs of a growing population, while preserving the planet.

“REACT-FIRST provides a way of doing exactly this: by growing single-cell protein using CO2 emissions from industry, it creates a new, scalable and circular protein, which is the opportunity to help feed manufacturers and farmers and improve animal nutrition and wellbeing via a high-quality ingredient that is consistent and can easily be traced back to its origins.”

Scientists from the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture are tasked with investigating the feasibility of microbial single-cell protein (SCP) as a substitute for marine and terrestrial meal in salmon aquafeeds. The Institute’s Mónica Betancor is leading the study, and explains: “The project aims to evaluate and validate a SCP produced from industrial emissions of CO2, with an amino acid profile tailored to meet the end-user requirements of the aquafeed industry, and also support and improve the sustainability and development of U.K. aquaculture by contributing to U.K. food security.

“Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector, with the U.K. salmon industry expected to increase significantly. Such growth can only be achieved in a sustainable manner by replacing the traditionally used marine ingredients in aquafeeds – fish meal and fish oil – for more sustainable options. The main alternative to fish meal in aquafeeds is vegetable meal, however, this has its constraints, and single-cell      protein is an excellent alternative as it is nutritionally optimised to meet the demands of aquaculture. Our work in the REACT-FIRST project will determine its feasibility as a substitute for other protein sources in the feeds for farmed salmon.”

 Polly Douglas, aquaculture innovation manager at SAIC, adds, “REACT-FIRST is a highly innovative way of turning the CO2 produced by another process into a key component of our food chain, providing a sustainable source of feed for fish. It could make a significant contribution to food security in the U.K., while reducing the supply chain’s carbon footprint – both of which have seldom been of more relevance.”

The Synthetic Biology Research Centre at the University of Nottingham is one of the largest research centres of its kind in the world, and is focused on engineering bacteria to make industrially useful products from single carbon feedstocks – in particular greenhouse gases, COand methane – with the overall goal to reduce reliance on petrochemicals by creating technologies that convert single carbon feedstocks into the chemicals, fuels and products society needs, including animal feed.

Of its role in REACT-FIRST, SBRC director, Professor Nigel Minton, says, “The SBRC has created a concentration of knowledge and expertise in aerobic gas fermentation for the U.K. REACT-FIRST is a fantastic opportunity for the SBRC to work with like-minded organizations that share the passion to create sustainable routes to animal feed production systems. The project has the potential to make a real difference. REACT-FIRST’s joint industry: academia relationship is a conduit for the translation and adoption of UKRI-funded research. It is an important output of the SBRC’s research which will lead to significant outcomes from the SBRC’s research base, and we are delighted to provide SBRC’s unique facilities and expertise to support towards developing sustainable animal feed and in improving their nutritional characteristics.”

Experts from Nottingham Trent University’s Poultry Research Unit are tasked with investigating and benchmarking the nutritional quality of Proton™ as a poultry feed ingredient, advising on the processes to optimally prepare it for inclusion in the poultry feed, and conducting poultry nutrition trials. Once the nutritional evaluation is complete, NTU will work with the feed companies within the REACT-FIRST consortium to produce KPIs for improved protein ingredients profile based on commercial feed matrix data, which will be used to develop a report for the European Food Safety Authority to register the new feed materials.

Emily Burton, associate professor in Sustainable Food Production at NTU, says, “The poultry sector has much to be proud of in terms of low carbon meat production, but REACT-FIRST could catapult the sector into a completely new league. As well as providing access to a sustainable protein source, the project will help create stability for the animal production sector because feed represents about half of the total production costs for meat poultry.”

Along with providing the REACT-FIRST project with market-focused guidance throughout the lifecycle of the project, Sainsbury’s is assisting with stakeholder mapping and engagement in order to ensure maximum potential market acceptance, penetration and end-to-end value.

Sainsbury’s recently pledged to become Net Zero across its own operations by 2040, and REACT-FIRST’s focus aligns with these wider values, as Judith Batchelar, director of Sainsbury’s Brand explains, “Our customers care about where our products come from and they put their trust in us to do the right thing on their behalf. We’re proud to work closely with farmers, growers and suppliers in the U.K. and around the world to build resilient, sustainable and fairly-traded supply chains that will help more people live better today, tomorrow and in the future.

“Being part of the REACT-FIRST consortium is an outstanding opportunity to produce feeds for our farmed fish and chicken, with 65-75 percent smaller carbon footprints than existing feeds, no requirements for arable land, minimal water usage, and so we build more resilience into our supply chains for animal feed. REACT-FIRST should help the aquaculture and poultry feed industries move towards self-sufficiency from a dietary protein perspective, and reduce the instability of animal feed prices experienced by farmers.”

As well as assessing the economic, societal and environmental benefits of Proton, a team at Innogen Institute at The University of Edinburgh is supporting REACT-FIRST to innovate responsibly and engage with relevant stakeholders to ensure wider acceptance of the technology. The University’s REACT-FIRST work is being led by Alan Raybold and Joyce Tait who are both involved in research and teaching programmes in the University of Edinburgh’s Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, an interdisciplinary hub committed to transforming global agri-food systems to achieve food and environmental security.

Alan Raybould, Chair of Innovation in the Life Sciences at the University, explains, “REACT-FIRST is an exciting opportunity for Innogen to work with organisations throughout the animal-feed value chain to maximise the benefits of Proton and increase the sustainability of animal-protein production systems.”

Joyce Tait, Founding Director of Innogen and Technical Author of the British Standards Institution (BSI) standard for Responsible Innovation (PAS440), adds:

“Innogen’s experience in supporting responsible innovation from a business point of view means we are ideally placed to enable REACT-FIRST to deliver and demonstrate a responsible innovation approach for Proton production and commercialisation, including consumer acceptance.”

Geoff Simm, Director of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, adds:

“Sustainable protein feed sources will contribute to reducing the environmental impact of meat production systems. Projects like REACT-FIRST are key to help the industry move towards achieving net-zero emissions.”