Microbial Oil: A Greener Alternative to Palm Oil
Palm oil, the world’s most widely used vegetable oil, is present in 50% of all products sold in supermarkets, including food, cosmetics, oral care, hygiene products, and so on. The need for palm oil has grown over the years, but it is hard to avoid the associated concerns. The clearing of forests to make way for palm plantations is a major cause of deforestation in the tropics. Palm is incredibly difficult to beat as an oil source. Its high crop efficiency is the first factor contributing to its low cost in comparison to other oils. Furthermore, because it grows all year in the tropics, even in a variety of soils, and is perennial, the palm is more productive than other oil-producing crops. Palm oil is unique in its composition, with an equal ratio of saturated and unsaturated fats, making it exceptionally chemically stable and helping to extend the shelf life of packaged foods.
Finding a suitable replacement for palm oil is difficult due to these characteristics.
Oil derived from microorganisms, which is as diverse but less dangerous than palm oil, could become a viable substitute in the near future. Different types of algae, yeast, fungus, and bacteria can be used to produce microbial oil, but oleaginous microorganisms—which can accumulate more than 20% of their cell weight in lipids—are the most effective. Microbial oil is a promising substitute for palm oil due to its potential high yielding capacity and its ability to be more environmentally friendly than palm and many companies are heavily contributing in changing the narrative.
The Estonia-based company named ÄIO, uses oleaginous yeast to generate oils and fats, along with startups c16 Bio, Circe, Nourish, Yali Bio, Seminal Bio, NoPalm Ingredients, Zero Acre Farms, Melt & Marble, and Clean Food Group. A biotech company, Fibenol recently began converting its wood sugars into oils and fatty acids using ÄIO technology, making them suitable for use as functional food and feed. Zero Acre Farms, a food company, introduced its cultured oil in July of last year, using 85% less land than canola oil, 99% less water than olive oil, and 86% less CO2 than soybean oil.
The majority of these players feed their microorganisms glucose from food crops like maize, though some use gas fermentation. According to ÄIO researchers, using biotech techniques to obtain new and alternative fats and oils could reduce CO2 emissions by 100 million metric tons, assuming ÄIO’s technology replaces about 30% of the world’s current consumption of palm oil.
It’s quite simple to culture microorganisms regardless of the climate and only requires a bioreactor. The microorganisms must first be cultured and fed oxygen and sugar—anything from cane sugar to molasses—which initiate fermentation and prompt the cells to proliferate in order to extract that oil in the laboratory. The microorganisms are ruptured to release the oil when they reach a critical mass. However, optimizing the procedure to obtain the maximum oil is the most challenging aspect.
Growing bacteria that feed on waste material can improve sustainability even more. According to reports, German researchers from NextVegOil company are making oil from the fungus Ustilago maydis that is fed on leftover corn from the harvest, while the oil from the Netherlands-based business NoPalm is made from yeast that ferments vegetable scraps like potato peels.
However, the production of microbial oil has its own set of challenges, including a high cost. For now, it is considered an energy extensive process due to the high energy requirement during sugar release from biomass and the oxygen requirement to fulfill aerobic growth conditions for microbes. A lot more focus is required for the selection of raw materials and optimization of the extraction conditions to make the product cost and energy efficient.