Mix Masters 

Behind the scenes at Blue Marble Biomaterials—or, put another way, the story of a giant metal cow that ate a swamp

Blue Marble Biomaterials sits in the flat industrial area near the Missoula International Airport. The front room accommodates a staff of 15—up from just four employees two years ago—in an open layout furnished with modern-looking black desks and office chairs. It has the vibe of a hip, bustling startup on the rise and seems ordinary enough—if, that is, you hold your breath.

Breathing in, visitors are hit with a cluster of sweet and savory smells. It’s hard to pinpoint each and every fragrance: one day it could be fermented fruit mixed with pine needles and wet coffee grounds. The next, the aromatic puzzle seems to shift to something closer to boiled cabbage and the smell of cotton candy, but even sweeter.

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  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • James Stephens, founder of Blue Marble Biomaterials, established his Missoula biorefinery in 2011.

Blue Marble is a relatively new company that manufactures renewable specialty chemicals for the food, cosmetics and personal care industries. Some of its partners are local—Innovate Montana and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, to name two—but others are universally known, such as beer giant Anheuser-Busch. Each of these partners plays a specific role in Blue Marble’s proprietary “closed loop” process of using completely natural materials to enhance everyday products, from the flavor of your candy bar to the color of your makeup.

The secret to how they do it lies in part in the smells that permeate the office. Just past the sleekly decorated front room is a lab where scientists pour a rainbow of compounds into canning jars set up across a stainless steel countertop. There’s a jar full of a cloudy peach-colored substance, still unmarked, and another full of deep-brown coffee resin. In one jar is a fluorescent green extract labeled “Doug Fir.” There’s a buzz in the lab and an air of experimentation not unlike that in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

In fact, Blue Marble’s modest facility unfolds like that fictitious factory, with more creative concoctions beyond each door. Past the lab, there’s the biorefinery, a high-ceilinged warehouse with metal vats connected by a series of tubes, jars and multi-colored wires. Generators click loudly on and then off again. The vats hold coffee grounds, pine needles or fruit—biological materials known as “feedstock”—all being fermented by a natural process done with microorganisms that Blue Marble founder James Stephens has collected from all over the world, from lake beds in Africa to swamps in South America.

The result of all of this exotic mixing and matching is relatively simple: It helps with the flavoring, fragrance or color to your candy, soap or vitamins. But how they do it—and how the process could be applied around the world—has positioned Blue Marble on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Traditional manufacturing plants that produce these kinds of products tend to focus on chemical reactions and genetically modified organisms to get what they need. Blue Marble’s refinery works more like an experimental ecological system where disparate microorganisms are thrown together to create a wild soup. That soup, it seems, can produce an endless realm of natural chemicals.

“We aren’t thinking one process, one product,” Stephens says. “We’re thinking one process, 50,000 different products. We have microorganisms from Israel to the bottoms of the ocean, and we’ve mixed all these organisms together. Engineers hate it—there are too many variables, they can’t sort them out. But it works really well for nature, so why can’t it work for manufacturing?”

If Blue Marble is the Willy Wonka factory of fragrance and cosmetics, Blue Marble founder James Stephens fits the profile for a Wonka-type character set in Montana. Dressed in loose khakis, a striped polo and hiking boots, he doesn’t have the same eccentric fashion flair as Gene Wilder’s onscreen portrayal, nor the crazed and sinister demeanor. But he does talk fast with exuberant gestures and a big smile, drinks coffee by the pot and sleeps only three or four hours a night. Watching his face you can almost see the synapses firing, the wheels turning in his brain.

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Stephens, 32, graduated from the University of Montana in 2002 with degrees in microbiology and medical technology. Like so many science students interested in biotech, he looked around Missoula and saw no future for himself. He moved to Seattle and worked for biotech and pharmaceutical companies by day, but at night he stayed awake pondering his own projects. He wanted to develop a way that expensive remediation projects, such as cleaning up mines and spoiled rivers, could not only help the environment but also be profitable. If he could use algae to clean up metals from a mine and then turn that algae into biodiesel, the incentive for cleanup projects could only increase.

In 2005, Stephens partnered with entrepreneur Kelly Ogilvie to study the possibilities of using algae for energy. They harvested algae from the ocean to turn it into biodiesel. They designed and built a fancy photobioreactor that extracted methanol. They named their business Blue Marble after the famous 1972 photograph from Apollo 17, the first image of Earth from space. “It’s a reminder that our natural resources are finite,” Stephens says.

As it turned out, biodiesel from algae isn’t economical. “There’s no way you’d ever make money with it unless oil hit $1,000 a barrel,” Stephens says. Regulations for harvesting wild algae also made the project prohibitive. By the time the renewable methane market crashed in 2008, the Blue Marble co-founders admitted they’d hit a dead end.

Like a true inventor, however, Stephens wasn’t one to surrender. He ruminated on the matter and came up with a new idea. The process for making biodiesel includes discarding a plethora of chemicals from the biomass. What if it was those very chemicals that were the real key to success? “We were pulling out hydrogen sulfite—all these organic acids and alcohols,” Stephens says. “We thought, ‘That’s worth way more than the methane!’”

Blue Marble decided to head in an entirely different direction.

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Bio-based fuels are nothing new; Henry Ford ran his first Model Ts on corn-based ethanol before cheap and abundant petroleum overtook it. But the airline industry has always been petroleum-based, making it dependent on—and vulnerable to—imported oil. Stephens and Ogilvie began exploring the alternative jet fuel market. Competing with fuel prices of about $3.19 a barrel didn’t promise a lot of money, but being on the cutting edge of the jet industry’s turn toward renewables appealed to the company. Stephens and Ogilvie took various feedstocks like wood and brewery grains and began producing organic compounds that could be used in jet biofuel. The main compound they produced was butyl butyrate, an organic fruity-smelling ingredient that’s used in candy.

In late 2008, the duo excitedly presented their new biofuel at a conference. After their presentation, Frank Mars III, of the famous candy bar family and a real-life Willy Wonka of sorts, approached Stephens and Ogilvie. Stephens recalls the moment as the pivotal point for Blue Marble.

“[Mars] came up to us and said, ‘You know that compound butyl butyrate that you’re using?’ And we’re like, ‘Oh yeah. It makes a great jet fuel.’ He said, ‘Yeah, well it’s [also] the smell of blueberries.” Mars asked them if they realized that in the flavor industry that same compound, butyl butrate, can be sold to flavor candy and other foods for $800 a gallon.

“We do now,” Stephens replied excitedly to Mars.

Just like that, Blue Marble discarded the jet fuel idea and began its journey into the specialty chemical niche for fragrance, coloring and high-end oils. In 2011, Blue Marble opened its biorefinery in Missoula and began its first major experimentations.

“The stroke of genius is recognizing the discovery,” Stephens says. “I always joke that I’d rather be lucky than smart any day.”

It was only 10 years ago that scientists figured out how complex the chemical process for Egyptian mummification really was. Though Egyptians didn’t necessarily understand how chemistry worked on a formulaic level, they’d already been playing with fermentation, like for beer, and extraction. Conifer resin, which slows microbial degradation, was one substance used on mummies, while beeswax, naturally antibacterial, served as a sealant. Ancient Assyrians weren’t ignorant to chemistry either. They used natural microorganisms to heat bathwater.

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“What we’re doing isn’t new,” says Stephens about Blue Marble’s process. “This is 5,000-year-old technology. The Egyptians used to do anaerobic digestion. They would put salt in an anaerobic digester to get the acetic acid salt, the proprionic acid salt and use that as preservatives for mummification. We have some novel spins on the technology, but in reality it’s been there all along.”

The technology may be ancient, but it’s a process that has been abandoned for more toxic alternatives. In a modern industrial chemical manufacturing plant, petroleum and high heat often work together with genetically modified organisms to create synthetic products. The layout of the plant is designed by an engineer and the mixtures are precise to create one product. At Blue Marble, however, all the equipment is custom built, because even the equipment is experimental. Instead of following a step-by-step process, Stephens throws in biomass and natural organisms to see what they’ll do together and he adjusts the combination of organisms as he sees fit.

“It’s a complex process to get the microorganism right and that’s one of the things we do differently than everybody else,” he says. “Most industrial microbiology companies use one microorganism, usually genetically modified, to make one product. We use about 60,000 different organisms and we can probably produce about 54,000 different compounds. Right now, we’re focusing on 32.”

Still, they’re always trying to find new compounds; they add about 80 new experimental feedstocks each month.

The company’s patented conversion system is called AGATE and stands for acid, gas, ammonia targeted extraction. Each fermentation uses several strains of bacteria that break down the feedstocks. The combination of organisms makes it easy for the company to process just about anything. If one product no longer seems economically efficient, the refinery can convert other feedstocks for something else, without any hardship.

The refinery works like a giant ecosystem or a body the way it breaks down materials and turns them into gases and liquids. “We joke around here that this room is like a giant metal cow that ate a swamp,” Stephens says.

In the first stage of the process, feedstocks—clove, coffee, algae, yarrow, coriander, spinach, black pepper, Ponderosa pine, etc.—can go through one or both extraction processes. Spent coffee grounds, some of which are collected from cafes and restaurants around Missoula, are one of the most relevant of the feedstocks. The grounds are picked through so no unwanted items—a carrot peeling, for instance—will taint the flavor. Then the grounds go through an alcohol extraction done with butanol, which produces a sweet smelling coffee flavoring, even though the coffee grounds are on their second life.

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“So it’s an oil but it has all those coffee characteristics—sweet notes,” Stephens says. “It smells like strong, sweet coffee and yet this is from spent grounds so it’s already made your coffee.”

Supercritical fluid extraction is another process that can be used on coffee grounds and other feedstocks. Stephens takes gases and liquifies them to extract out very specific compounds. One of those coffee compounds is patented by several cosmetics companies that use it to interfere with fat metabolism. “As long as you’re using the compound, cellulite goes away—all from these coffee grounds,” Stephens says. “And it’s much higher value than fuel.”

Another product that Blue Marble can make is food coloring and flavor. Rotten tomatoes, for instance, that would normally go to the landfill or compost, can be put through the system to create a bright red pigment, or “carotenoid.” That same extraction process can be used on red bell peppers, carrots, watermelons or papayas to provide coloring for foods and pharmaceuticals.

After the carotenoids are taken, the rest of the fruit or vegetable can be thrown into a vat and fermented to pull out acids and natural chemicals for flavor. Flavors you might encounter from the alcohol and ester extraction include raspberry, pineapple and pear.

One thing Blue Marble has worked on recently is taking the sulphur stream that comes off the biomass as it’s being fermented and turning it into flavor or fragrance compounds.

“It converts it into a wide variety of organic acids,” Stephens says. “So there’s acetic acid, which is vinegar. There’s proprionic acid, which is the lovely smell of goats.” He laughs. “There’s butyric acid, which is the lovely smell of vomit. And it also produces natural alcohol: ethanol, methanol, propanol, butanol—all these valuable alcohols that are normally produced with petroleum as well.”

Why would anyone want the smell of vomit or goats?

“If we take ethanol,” Stephens explains, “which is just normal alcohol, and we take ester, which is the smell of vomit, and combine it back together, it’s the smell of tutti frutti.” Tutti frutti is, of course, the specific flavor that’s used in Juicy Fruit gum. It’s worth 50 times more than a gallon of biodiesel.

Some of the stenches from working with sulphur compounds include the smell of skunk and the smell of natural gas lines. But mixed with certain acids, those smells turn to savory notes like leek, garlic and cabbage—flavors that are used in the food industry for bullion cubes, au jus dipping sauce and commercial kombucha. Stephens smiles, acknowledging the creepiness of what he’s saying.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Using feedstocks such as used coffee grounds and spent brewery grains, Stephens can make natural flavors that can go into chocolate bars and boullion cubes.

“Once you delve into what actually goes into your food you get kind of horrified,” he admits. “Anything that says ‘natural and artificial flavors’ on it probably has some of these compounds in it. But most of these compounds are coming from chemical manufacturers using petroleum. So being able to do this from a natural source is important.”

The natural process for making these compounds allows Blue Marble to label itself “EU natural” (it’s also U.S. natural, though Stephens notes that standards for “natural” in the United States are lower than in Europe.) The biorefinery also just recently got its kosher status. “We have our own rabbi and everything,” Stephens says.

At the end of the line, after all the colors and fragrances, alcohols and acids have been taken out, there’s not much left. Water from the fermenters is recycled with reverse osmosis and gases are scrubbed. The only things that remains is clean water, scrubbed air—oxygen and a little bit of CO2—and products. The closed-loop system means that nothing is wasted from beginning to end.

“We kind of take the perspective that we take from native and indigenous cultures, though it has become a cliché, which is ‘use the whole animal,’” Stephens says. “When you bring something in, let’s be sure to use all of it.”

The beer industry uses 400 million tons of grain annually. Of that grain, 92 percent is wasted, according to the Property and Environmental Research Center. Blue Marble’s partnership with Anheuser-Busch allows the biotech company to buy the beer giant’s spent grain—a lot of which comes from Montana farmers—and turn it into alcohols and esters that could go into everything from soaps to biogas, an alternative energy source. Anheuser-Busch gets paid for its waste product and Blue Marble gets a feedstock that can be turned into a product.

But Stephens is looking beyond the current setup. He’d like to one day provide companies like Anheuser-Busch with their own metal cow system, so to speak, which could help the brewery become a producer of valuable products, too, including alternative energy. “We’re working on a variety of custom applications of our technology to help convert [other companies’] waste centers,” he says.

The fermenting process at Blue Marble is distinct in another way. The complex polyculture of microorganisms break down cellulose, which is true of any ethanol process. But Blue Marble’s organisms don’t turn cellulose to glucose. They excrete enzymes that break cellulose into cellulose sub-units, which they then re-absorb.

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“What that does is that allows them to out-compete normal organisms that would eat the sugar,” Stephens says. “Normally, if you’re doing a fermentation process, you have to sterilize your feedstock, otherwise natural organisms on the feedstock will compete. Our organisms out-compete other competing organisms, which means we don’t have to sterilize our feedstocks. That’s a huge technical advantage. That means we can leave containers open, we can be much more rough. We can treat this like making sourdough bread than treating it like a high-tech biotech process.”

It’s a proprietary recipe that Stephens has cultivated over the last four years. He says that using this natural sterilization process has a broader potential. If the same refinery were replicated elsewhere, the self-sterilizing process would make it simple enough that it wouldn’t require a highly educated labor force. A facility like this, says Stephens, could be installed anywhere in Montana and beyond, such as developing countries. “That’s how it’s going to benefit all communities,” he says.

As it is, Blue Marble is a zero-waste, 100,000-liter per month biorefinery—small by manufacturing standards but able to make products that deliver a good profit margin. If things go according to plan, Stephens sees bigger things in the company’s future. He’s currently working to raise $15 million to build a facility 15 times larger just across the street from the existing building. With the hope of soliciting feedstocks from additional sources, including local ones like waste from Bitterroot orchards and woody biomass from fire mitigation projects, he’s looking to add 100 scientists and “green-collar” jobs over the next year.

While Blue Marble’s focus will continue in the cosmetics and fragrances vein, Stephens also sees potential for other companies and organizations to benefit from the technology. Working with the DNRC and forestry groups such as Swan Valley Innovations, the company uses waste wood in his fermenters that would otherwise be burned. “Normally when you think about hog fuel it’s really inexpensive,” Stephens says. “But since we’re trying to get into high-value compounds we pay quite a bit more for it, which provides more value to the industry.”

There are pitfalls to this niche green industry, though. Stephens says there’s only so much pine oil for flavor and fragrance that the world’s cosmetics companies need. But Stephens, who thinks big and with the idea of ecosystems in mind, sees his company as one link in a chain of connected businesses. In recent years, several green biotech companies have popped up in Montana, including Rivertop Renewables, another partner of Blue Marble’s, which uses renewable plant sugars to create things like road de-icers and health supplements. Another one, Algevolve, uses algae for advanced water treatment and carbon capture—a system that Blue Marble employs to clean its water and gases.

“All of these companies are looking at their own solutions, but they come together,” Stephens says. “So if someone’s making sugar for jet fuel, maybe Blue Marble can take some of the waste product first and ferment it. Then the sugar can be sold to Rivertop for their process and then it can be sold to the jet fuel guys.”

As Blue Marble looks to branch out, the scientists there continue to experiment with organisms from every corner of the earth and all the feedstock they can think of. For four years their current organisms have evolved together in the Blue Marble vats in ways that they never would have in the natural world. Those bold combinations hint at endless possibilities.

“We got made fun of at conferences for years,” Stephens says. “We always said we were the black sheep of the industry, but now people are paying attention. We have stuff that’s from 1,000 feet of mud in the Pacific Ocean and we’re mixing it all together with cow bacteria to create complementary biological pathways. When did that stuff ever meet a cow bacteria? Never in history.”

Until now.

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