Turning industrial waste into livestock fodder

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Around 80 billion litres of the fuel bioethanol are produced annually from fermented cereals. The yeast used in the process is discarded. Now, an academic/industry partnership led by Dr Emily Burton, from Nottingham Trent University, has led to a process that can retrieve proteins from what would otherwise have been discarded as cereal ‘waste’ which can then be used in chicken feed and commercial fish feed. 

  • New process extracts valuable proteins from discarded yeast used in bioethanol production and repurposes it for use in poultry and fish feed
  • Patented process already adopted by bioethanol industry in the US
  • Could lead to global production of three million tonnes of protein derived from ‘waste’ matter
  • EPSRC Industrial CASE partnership funded the PhD student who made the breakthrough

The underpinning research was supported by EPSRC and AB Agri, the agricultural division of Associated British Foods, resulting in a breakthrough by Dawn Scholey, a PhD student at Nottingham.

Thanks to Dawn’s work, the team came up with a way to separate the protein from the waste yeast and showed that it contained nutrients that are easily digestible by chickens. This patented process could provide a cost-competitive alternative to soya-based protein and other feeds given to chickens bred for meat production. 

The process has already been taken up by industry in the US, which is using it to produce high quality protein for poultry feed alongside bioethanol production.

If adopted worldwide, the process could lead to global production of three million tonnes of high-grade protein chicken from discarded bioethanol bi-products.

The research project was borne out of the vision of biofuels pioneer Dr Pete Williams of AB Agri, which, with EPSRC, jointly funded Dawn Scholey via an Industrial CASE studentship awarded to Emily Burton.

Dr Burton says: “I’ve always had a close relationship with industry. This allows me and my team to really understand the problems and challenges companies face, so we try to direct research projects to focus on problem-solving.

“The EPSRC CASE studentship allowed us to build a small, simple poultry research facility. It got us going, and now we have a huge programme that was built out of that.”

A Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Plymouth University subsequently enabled Dr Williams to demonstrate that the protein could be fed to fish such as farmed salmon.

Pete Williams acknowledges the importance of academic/industry partnerships. He says: “We couldn’t have got this development started without the EPSRC CASE studentship, which allowed us to establish the proof of concept.”

The project led to Dr Williams’ Knowledge Transfer Partnership funding and a grant from the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK).

In parallel with the EPSRC funding, the Nottingham researchers were granted a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Industrial CASE studentship, which enabled PhD student, Harriet Lea, to work with animal health company Alltech UK3 to establish the mode of action of a prebiotic chicken food supplement.

The combined support of BBSRC and EPSRC not only helped Emily Burton to establish a new poultry research unit with researchers at Nottingham Trent University, it provided a springboard for recruitment and training of researchers to meet a critical poultry industry skills need. Dr Dawn Scholey is now a full-time member of the team.

The research has been so successful that the liquid protein extracted during the process essentially becomes the most valuable component, more so than the bioethanol. Pete Williams says: “Our story is similar to that of the soya bean, which was originally processed to produce oil but is now grown for the meal. The key is that our bioprocessed meal will be produced from a non-GM English wheat crop and will replace imported soya bean meal.”