Biotech firm exploring uses for ‘liquid cow’

An Alberta company has developed a way to safely dispose of livestock carcasses and other organic waste. And it’s chosen Lacombe as the site for a demonstration facility that could attract global attention.

An artist’s rendering of a biorefining facility proposed for Lacombe — converting organic waste into commercial products and energy; inset

An Alberta company has developed a way to safely dispose of livestock carcasses and other organic waste. And it’s chosen Lacombe as the site for a demonstration facility that could attract global attention.

Biosphere Technologies Inc. has been experimenting with thermal hydrolysis — the process of breaking down organic material with high-temperature saturated steam and pressure — for more than a decade. Its resulting Biorefinex system kills micro-organisms like viruses and bacteria, and was recently shown in a Scottish study to be effective in destroying prions — the infectious proteins responsible for transmissible spongiform encephalopathies like BSE.

That could open the door for the patented process to be used to dispose of dead livestock and specified risk material from slaughtered animals. Much of this waste is currently landfilled or composted, which creates environmental concerns, boosts processing costs and doesn’t eliminate prions, said Biosphere Technologies president Erick Schmidt.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has certified thermal hydrolysis as an effective way to destroy prions.

And in Europe, the Biorefinex system has been approved for use on dead livestock and inedible parts of animal carcasses.

With the Scottish study, Schmidt expects disposal of prion-diseased animals to be added to the list of European applications.

Biosphere Technologies has also been assessing the market potential of the “liquid cow” that emerges from its Biorefinex process.

In addition to serving as organic fertilizer, the molasses-like substance can be fractionated into biochemical products like fatty acids, amino acids, minerals and other elements.

It might also be used in an anaerobic digester to create biogas, which in turn could generate electricity and thermal energy.

“You have these various options,” said Schmidt. “It depends what products you’re making and what markets would be the best.

“What we’re going to explore is all the different ways this stuff can be made into valuable industrial products.”

In the past, the focus in the livestock industry has been on animal parts that are suitable for consumption, he noted.

“But the majority of the weight of an animal is inedible. We never really saw that as a high-value feedstock.”

To showcase its Biorefinex technology and conduct further research, Biosphere Technologies plans to develop a commercial-scale biorefining facility in Lacombe.

“It will service the (Edmonton-Calgary) corridor, allow us to develop new valuable uses of the material and also work as a demonstration of this technology that can be marketed around the world,” said Schmidt.

The biorefinery would process inedible animal by-products and carcass materials from meat processors and farms, with a variety of species accepted. A Biorefinex processor, anaerobic digesters, biogas co-generation systems, a greenhouse and visitors galleries are all proposed.

Schmidt anticipates that it will be two years before the project becomes a reality, and at an estimated cost of $35 million. The money is expected to come from private and government sources.

Biosphere Technologies has a broad base of shareholders, said Schmidt, who grew up in Ponoka.

“A lot of people tied to livestock have been helping in the financing of this over the years,” he said, adding that other backers have come from the oil and gas, and manufacturing sectors.

Livestock waste material might not be the only feedstock suitable for the Biorefinex process. Schmidt said residential and commercial wet organic waste, ranging from produce to biodegradable plastic, is also a possibility.

“If we can expand it beyond the carcasses to all the other organic material, then the economic model is much more viable.”

Ken Kendall, Lacombe’s chief administrative officer, said town council has pledged its political support for the private project. A site in Lacombe’s Wolf Creek Industrial Park has even been identified as a suitable location.

Although his plans are still at an early stage, Kendall confirmed that the town has been talking to Schmidt for almost two years.

“It’s an interesting project, and why we’re interested in it at this point is that the science has been verified by others and this could be a real positive step forward for the agricultural industry.”

Biosphere Technologies began developing its technology about 14 years ago, said Schmidt. Initially, its objective was to find a way to process municipal organic waste.

After the effectiveness of thermal hydrolysis in destroying micro-organisms was verified, the decision was made to test the process on prions — which had become a hot topic with the spread of mad cow disease.

It proved virtually impossible to conduct such tests in North America, so Biosphere Technologies turned to the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“It was the only place where we could do a live animal test in the world,” said Schmidt.

The study involved injecting the brains of mice with infectious prions and later processing them using the Biorefinex system.

The successful results of these trials are published in the fall edition of Process Biochemistry, a European scientific journal.

“They were excellent results because there was no evidence of any disease,” said Schmidt.

“This is the end of 10 years of work.”

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