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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.
“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.”