Hyfé Targets Food Waste for Eco-Friendly Bioeconomy Boost

The bioeconomy, an industry driven by the use of renewable biological resources to produce food, materials, and energy, is poised for significant growth. However, a critical factor in its success hinges on the feedstocks that fuel this burgeoning sector. Michelle Ruiz, co-founder of Hyfé, emphasizes that current microbial fermentation processes heavily rely on purified sugars such as corn dextrose. These sugars are not only expensive but also carry a significant environmental footprint.

Ruiz, who previously managed a wastewater treatment plant for Exxon Mobil, points out that the industry is in a race to identify more cost-effective and sustainable feedstock alternatives. These alternatives range from valorizing industrial and agricultural waste streams to extracting cellulosic sugars from non-food crops, and even identifying microbes capable of converting carbon from the air into protein. However, one untapped source of sugars, according to Ruiz, is the sugary wastewater and some solid waste produced by food manufacturing facilities.

In 2021, Ruiz teamed up with LanzaTech biochemist Andrea Schoen to form Hyfé, a company dedicated to transforming waste streams into valuable feedstocks. Speaking at the recent SynBioBeta conference in San Jose, California, Ruiz highlighted the potential of wastewater from food processors. She noted that food manufacturers currently incur substantial costs to treat millions of gallons of sugary wastewater annually. With appropriate pre-treatment processes, this wastewater could be repurposed to feed microbial fermentation facilities.

“Wet corn mills, which produce dextrose, are significantly water and carbon-intensive,” Ruiz explained. “Life cycle analyses (LCAs) from precision fermentation companies reveal that the carbon footprint of the feedstock can constitute up to 80% of the LCA. Additionally, cost remains a challenge. The cheapest corn dextrose from a co-located facility can cost around $400 per ton. For instance, if you’re producing isoprene via microbial fermentation with a yield of 25%, the cost of the feedstock alone can reach the price of isoprene derived from petrochemicals.”

Ruiz stressed that for the bioeconomy to produce chemicals, foods, and materials that are more affordable than their carbon-intensive counterparts, the cost of feedstocks must decrease. Hyfé’s innovative approach involves working with both wastewater and solid biomass waste from food processors. The company has developed a process that utilizes membrane separation to extract as much sugar as possible from wastewater, returning exceptionally clean water in the process. This dual benefit saves manufacturers on both wastewater treatment and clean water costs.

“In many membrane processes, the flocculation and pre-treatment steps result in significant sugar loss,” Ruiz said. “Our process, however, minimizes sugar loss and maximizes sugar capture at the end of the stream.”

Hyfé’s work represents a significant step forward in the quest for sustainable and cost-effective feedstocks for biomanufacturing. By transforming waste streams into valuable resources, the company is addressing both economic and environmental challenges. As the bioeconomy continues to evolve, innovations like those developed by Hyfé will be crucial in reducing the industry’s reliance on costly and environmentally damaging feedstocks, paving the way for a more sustainable future.

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