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.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • 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?”

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