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Accelerating Impact: Professor Chris Chuck on palm oil alternative to curb deforestation

Professor Chris Chuck and a multi-disciplinary team at Bath have been able to further the development of a sustainable, yeast-based alternative to palm oil.

A scientist in lab coat and goggles holding up a small bottle a quarter full with amber coloured liquid
Creating a sustainable world with yeast

Creating a sustainable world with yeast

Funding from the University’s EPSRC IAA Open Call programme enabled Professor Chris Chuck and a multi-disciplinary team at Bath to further the development of a sustainable, yeast-based alternative to palm oil. The palm oil replacement could help combat some of the most important challenges we face today: climate change caused by deforestation, and food security.

The challenge

Palm oil is almost everywhere. Half of the packaged products on our supermarket shelves are estimated to contain palm oil or its derivates. Cosmetics such as lipsticks and shampoos can also count palm oil in their ingredients.

In 2021, the global palm oil market was valued at US $50.6 billion and is expected to reach US $65.5 billion by 2027. It’s rapid growth as a crop over recent years has led to irrevocable damage to our planet. The consequences include severe deforestation, water and air pollution, and increased greenhouse gas emissions across South East Asia.

Since 1980, the amount of land used to grow oil palm has more than quadrupled – rising from 4 million hectares in 1980 to 19 million hectares in 2018. Today, Malaysia and Indonesia are together the world’s palm oil factories, accounting for 84% of all production. Between 2001 and 2016, over 2 million hectares of Indonesia’s forest were turned over to oil palm growing. As global demand for palm oil grows there is an urgent need to find alternatives in order to prevent further deforestation in these and other palm oil producing countries.

"Two major things excite me about this work. Firstly, I have witnessed the enormous devastation that commodity driven deforestation causes to immigrant labour, horrendous local pollution, devastating biodiversity and devasting the planet through global warming. To be part of the solution to that – well, that’s truly motivating.

Secondly, I strongly believe that we are at the start of a food revolution, with exciting novel ingredients being produced through cellular fermentation rather than from traditional plants and meats. It’s incredibly exciting to know that the yeast we are working on has so much potential to play a key part in this new world." Professor Chris Chuck

Advancing science to save the planet

Prof Chuck teamed up with Dr Daniel Henk, from Bath’s Milner Centre for Evolution, alongside a cross-disciplinary team of biologists, chemists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers and food scientists at Bath. Their aim was to further develop the conversion of waste products, such as left-over agricultural waste, into a yeast oil indistinguishable from palm oil.

Having successfully produced the yeast-based alternative in the lab, the IAA project sought to test the viability of scaling up production from lab scale to pilot scale – a key step in helping to de-risk the technology and attract potential partners to support commercialisation.

How IAA funding made a difference

The IAA Award enabled the team to take the pilot process to the next level by demonstrating that the processing methodology could be applied on an industrial scale. This involved working with the BEACON team at Aberystwyth University’s biorefining centre to scale up the yeast fermentation process developed in the lab from 2L scale to 350L scale production.

Through the pilot the team were able to determine the behaviour of the yeast, assess contamination issues under industrial conditions, assess the stability over a longer time period and obtain sufficient data to inform the next stage of development.

"Without the IAA funding this critical pilot-scale work would not have been able to move forward and discussions regarding future collaborative and funding opportunities beyond the current EPSRC grant would have stalled.

The funding was pivotal in being able to prove to companies and investors that this technology could actually be scaled and did have the potential to be commercialised. Without the IAA award we would simply not have got to where we are now, which is in touching distance of commercialising a credible yeast-based palm oil." Professor Chris Chuck

Next steps

The Clean Food Group, a food-tech start-up business developing cultivated food, have recently acquired the intellectual property and the process developed by the team as part of an £1.8 million investment package. The financing will ramp up the process on an industrial scale to include production of a range of edible and non-edible products using the yeast-based alternative.

"The possibilities are endless. With these types of technologies, we have the chance to create genuinely novel types of food – not just replacements for things we already know, but ingredients that give new tastes, textures, and smells as well as being healthier. It is a very exciting and fast-moving area." Professor Chris Chuck

Professor Chris Chuck is a Professor of Bioprocess Engineering in the University of Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

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