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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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”