French oil giant backs startup recycling CO2 into animal food

Deep Branch raised 8 million euros to build a pilot plant to turn carbon dioxide into feed for livestock

U.K. startup Deep Branch secured funds from backers including French oil giant Total SE for its plan to turn carbon dioxide emissions into food for chickens, fish and pigs.

The company uses a fermentation process similar to winemaking or pickling, except that microbes feed on CO₂ and hydrogen instead of sugars. The result is a 70 per cent protein product called Proton that can replace conventional livestock feed such as fishmeal and soybeans. The agriculture industry’s reliance on the two ingredients has been linked to the depletion of wild fish stocks and caused large-scale deforestation.

“We can be price competitive with those ingredients without being bad for the planet,” Chief Executive Officer Peter Rowe said in an interview. “Not only is it a way to produce protein where you don’t require farmland and deforestation or overfishing, but also because the total carbon footprint of it is extremely small.”

Deep Branch said Tuesday it raised 8 million euros ($9.5 million) for a pilot project to scale up its technology. Investment fund Novo Holdings A/S and DSM Venturing led the financing round, which also included Barclays Sustainable Impact Capital. It brings the company’s funding to about 13 million euros.

The startup is one of several using fermentation technology to develop more sustainable protein. U.S.-based Air Protein and Finland-based Solar Foods are working on converting gases into food, while in India, String Bio recycles methane into protein for animals.

Deep Branch says its process produces 90 per cent fewer carbon emissions than would have been generated from traditional agricultural methods. Most of its emissions are due to the use of ammonia, which provides the nitrogen component of its proteins. Currently, ammonia is usually produced using natural gas in a carbon-intensive process, but companies are working on ways to manufacture the gas without causing emissions.

The startup has a deal with British energy producer Drax Group plc to use carbon dioxide waste captured at its bioenergy power plant. Deep Branch essentially recycles the planet-warming emissions by turning it into feed, since it will eventually be released into the air again after the protein is consumed. But the approach lowers the overall pollution needed to raise livestock by avoiding deforestation and reducing the fossil fuels needed to manufacture fertilizers that would otherwise have been used.

“It’s taking waste carbon dioxide and creating a valuable product out of it with nice sustainability benefits,” said Cindi Choi, managing director of Total’s Carbon Neutrality Ventures, which backs startups that support a low-carbon future.

Deep Branch is also developing aquafeed with Biomar Holding A/S and is working on poultry feed with AB Agri Ltd. A commercial-scale factory is planned in Europe for 2023.

Source: Bloomberg, 2021-03-16.