The Real “Sweet Spot”: Sugar from Post-Consumer Food Waste

On September 19, 2013, in Blog, by Jeanne Roberts

Over the past few months, various print and media sources have had a ball describing various food additives with a huge “ick” factor. From pink slime to fetal human kidney cells and beaver anal glands – not to mention beetle secretions that make food shine, or crushed bugs, or even fertilizer in bread to help the yeast grow – these additives run the gamut from substances as benign as silicon dioxide (sand) or as lethal as hexane, an explosive chemical solvent used to process GM soybeans into “veggie burgers”.

There’s a new stomach-churner in the works, and it is sugar. High-quality sugar, which inventor Dr. Brian Baynes, Founder and Chairman of Midori Renewables and partner at Flagship VentureLabs L, describes as coming from post-consumer food waste (among other things) via a breakthrough catalyst technology which revolutionizes the “entire value chain for converting cellulosic biomass via an extensively reusable solid.”

Not surprisingly, the explanation is a mouthful, and reflects Dr. Baynes – “call me Brian” – level of education (a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT). When questioned about his schooling, Dr. Baynes explains:

“You spend enough time in school and they give you some letters to put after your name.”

So why is this exceedingly bright and notably unpretentious individual tinkering with garbage?

Because, regardless how it might seem, or sound, Midori isn’t in the business of gratifying the “sweet tooth” of Americans – a fondness that leads to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Instead, Midori is about harvesting the sugars in cellulosic biomass and converting them to such a “clean” product that they can stand alone as biofuel. These are not sugar esters, but pure carbohydrates, which Midori sources from a number of biomass residues, including corn stover (stalks, leaves and harvested cobs), sugar cane bagasse (also from post-harvest leftovers), grasses, wheat straw, rice straw, trees, wood chips, tree bark, oil palm waste, the roots of cassava, leaves, food waste, and even textiles. Old t-shirts, for example, are almost entirely sugars.

In fact, Midori’s process is “feedstock agnostic”, working well with many forms of biomass. Food waste is an excellent resource, but suffers from a lack of accessibility. That is, even though one-third of the world’s food supply is wasted, it isn’t collected at a few known and accessible sites, which would simplify sourcing at the producer level, but at a myriad of locations ranging from landfills to food shelves.

“We would love to be able to collect all that stuff and turn it into sugars or reuse it another way,” Brian says. “What inspires us at Midori is trying to figure out how to get every bit of value from everything we create. And when we see waste, we immediately begin to think how to use it.”

Whether dealing with leftover bread or bagasse (or stover, or oil palm waste, the four best substances for extracting sugars), Midori’s catalyst and process delivers a high-quality sugar that looks somewhat like honey with a mild if distinct fragrance. It is also sufficiently refined enough to use in food – another “ick” factor that consumers would prefer not to contemplate. But Brian doesn’t see that use in food as an immediate opportunity. For one thing, there is no shortage of real sugar. For another, the safety concerns surrounding edible substances make for a great deal of regulatory pressure, which means that Midori is unlikely to pursue that as its first option.

So what is this remarkable discovery, this highly transformative catalyst? Unlike Flagship VentureLabs company Joule, which is experimenting with getting organisms like algae, plankton or cyanobacteria to consume carbon dioxide and sunlight instead of sugar, this technology does not focus on living elements.

“It’s not a bacteria or a biological. In fact, it is not derived from life in any way. Nor is it particularly esoteric, being made from bulk chemicals that one could find in the average petrochemical refinery, and made in approximately the same fashion as plastics to produce a substance that looks like little beads.

“We coat these beads with our ‘secret sauce’, and it is this aspect of our chemistry that makes it more than a plastic.”

Brian’s responses suggest he’s not only ‘getting into’ my lame food comparisons, but that he might also be a very savvy poker player. One has only to hear his story to understand that his relationship with Flagship Ventures and his willingness to explore new possibilities has been the hallmark of his career. In fact, if not for Venture Labs, where Flagship Ventures’ partners get a head start inventing new companies, Brian would have invented his own entity, unable to resist the thrill of starting a company based on knowledge, skills and a hunch that he and his partners could do it better. And at one point that is precisely what he did.

For example: “We thought we could make DNA faster and cheaper. We wondered if we could make plants grow faster, or make fuel molecules. Biotech was like being in a library; you could read any book you wanted, but you didn’t have a pen (to write down your discoveries).

Along the way, I had every job but CFO. At one point I was even the janitor. Then, in 2009, I learned that I was passionate about starting these businesses. I came back to Flagship and said, “Okay, let’s look at some new products.”

And that, notes Brian, was the genesis of Midori Renewables, whose management team – President and CEO Daniel Trunfio, Dr. Sadesh Sookraj, CBO, and Brian himself – constitutes the best mix of management skills, scientific know-how, and immersion in both old and new energy technologies.

Flagship Ventures had already invested in Midori’s sustainability practices, notably in a company called Mascoma, which converted wood chips to ethanol. The progression, from Mascoma to LS9 (converting sugars to biodiesel) to Midori (biomass to sugars) and, finally, Joule (converting CO2 to liquid fuels), was an essential evolution.

How will Midori spread this particular technological wealth around? Its superbly imaginative description of the technology – as a “bolt-on” enterprise – suggests that anyone who has given up on corn-to-biofuels, for example, can put a Midori plant at the front end of its current facility for a fast, inexpensive and painless upgrade.

Alternatively, Midori might identify a good source of biomass – one that, unlike corn, won’t drive the price of tortillas in Mexico so high that poor people can no longer afford to eat even this dietary staple, as happened in 2008. Then it would only be a matter of building a plant and operating it.

Having scaled the process up from small experimental models, working in an area of chemistry that no one else was exploring, Midori was finally able to process a ton of biomass with an equal measure of the catalyst. The result, which looks somewhat like honey and has a mild fragrance, can deliver one-quarter ton of fuel in a maximum of two hours.

At one point in the past, ethanol reportedly cost five times more to produce than ‘straight-run’ gasoline. This, notes Brian, is no longer true – if it ever was. In fact, the current cost of a barrel of oil – $110 as compared to about $12 in 1998 – makes the two sources quite comparable. Brian, a former employee of both Mobil and Exxon, keeps his finger on the energy pulse and I simply take his word for it.

“The difference,” he adds. “Is that ethanol doesn’t have as much energy as gasoline. In fact, it only has about two-thirds as much. But at least Midori will be able to make ethanol 2 or even 2.5 times less expensive than the same fuel from corn.”

Moreover, no one will have to go hungry as food crops are withdrawn for biofuels, which is eminently fair when one considers the fact that the truly poor people of the world do not drive.

My last question was how Brian got from there to here – a question I never fail to ask, even though some individuals are reluctant to answer.

Not so Brian, who admits that his teenage self didn’t have that much maturity or vision.

“Frankly, I still don’t. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in five or ten years. I’m one of these guys who reads science books at the beach. My wife and my family look at me like I’m crazy, but I love it!”

Raised by parents who were both engineers, Brian’s love of math and science set him on a course that seems so natural he may not always think of it as a career. In other words, he may be the epitome of the old saying: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

What a wonderful way to spend one’s life!

 

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