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How to fight air pollution and make animal feed cheaper? Ask Fermentech Labs

Farmers in India who are compelled to burn their crop residue often face the brunt of an ill-managed system. IIT-Roorkee supported Fermentech Labs has a simple solution to their woes which involves reusing crop stubble to produce commercial enzymes.

, ET Online|
Jan 09, 2020, 10.54 AM IST
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The biotechnology firm currently produces five enzymes at lab scale, including phytase, pectinase and cellulase, among others. Phytase is commonly used as an animal feed supplement, mostly in poultry and swine.
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Amidst the chaos surrounding air pollution in the national capital, few farmers in Punjab were arrested in November last year and fined for burning crop residue, one of the leading causes of air pollution. When detained, farmers complained that they had no other option to dispose the farm remains, and the government has not provided them machines. A similar state of affairs had been witnessed in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh as well, with the state government regulations falling on deaf ears and farmers burning crop stubble out of compulsion.

One of the suggested solutions to the Centre has been to implement better crop residue management. For those unaware, crop residue can be converted into bio-ethanol, tableware, paper and other products, thereby aiding in sustainable development and providing additional income to farmers.

Sidharth Arora, a PhD holder in Biotechnology, has a similar solution for the farmers’ dilemma. Arora’s novel solid state fermentation (SSF) bioreactor produces industrial enzymes by using agro-waste i.e., the crop residue. The enzymes produced have various applications, from the textile industry to being a nutritional component in animal feed.

“Since we procure the agro-waste from farmers, it increases their income, which is directly aligned to the Prime Minister’s vision of doubling the farmers’ income. Simultaneously, we are also addressing the problem of crop residue burning. If this technology is scaled up, large amounts of agro-waste can be channeled into the production of the enzymes,” Arora, founder of Fermentech Labs, told ET.com

A crop’s trash is an animal’s treasure
Timing worked out big time in Arora’s favor. The IIT-Roorkee doctorate had developed the bioreactor during his doctoral research and always held the idea that the research should have a commercial output.

“By the end of the PhD, my research received the Biotechnology Innovation Grant (BIG) by the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) and I had the minimum viable product (the industrial enzymes) in my hand,” he said, adding that when all these achievements merged together, he formed his startup- Fermentech Labs to manufacture and commercialise industrial enzymes in 2017.

The biotechnology firm currently produces five enzymes at lab scale, including phytase, pectinase and cellulase, among others. Phytase is commonly used as an animal feed supplement, mostly in poultry and swine. It improves the digestibility of amino acids, calcium, and phosphorous, thereby enhancing the nutrition value in animal feed.

PHOTO-2020-01-03-14-15-57
Sidharth Arora

Pectinase breaks down pectin, a component of the cell wall in fruits such as apples and oranges. It is commercially used to boost the process of extracting and clarification of juices from fruits such as wine clarification. Whereas, cellulase is used widely in textile industry, laundry detergents, commercial food processing in coffee and also in the biofuel industry.

Arora explained that the agro waste is lignocellulosic in nature, which means it contains lignin and cellulose. So the firm propagates and grows fungi on the agro-waste in the bioreactor. The fungi hydrolysis (chemically breaking down the compound) the cellulosic part in the agro-waste to make enzymes.

Here, there’s a leftover residue which has a high calorific value and is thus compressed and formed in the shape of pellets to be used as a substitute for coal in industrial boilers.

The bioreactor weighs 15 kg and the enzymes are produced at lab scale. It operates at a high substrate loading rate (59.2 %,v/v) in a strict aseptic environment

While Arora’s initiative to incentivize farmers for agro-waste is certainly a much-needed solution, what exactly is the need to manufacture these enzymes?

“There is a problem of disposal of agro-waste, and then the enzymes in India are mostly imported from China and are therefore, costly. So, if the enzymes are manufactured indigenously that will bring down the cost of production of enzymes and also generates employment in the country,” he said.

He added that the market price for the enzymes are somewhere around Rs 2,000-3,000 per litre but within Fermentech’s process, the production cost will become 16 times cheaper. Meanwhile, lending a hand in creating a sustainable environment and providing additional income to farmers, Fermentech is buying crop stubble for around Rs 800-1000 per ton.

Nascent beginnings
Operating under TIDES Business Incubator, IIT Roorkee, Fermentech has a team of eight. The firm launched its first product- Pectinase enzyme on November 22, 2019 at Global India Bio Summit by Renu Swaroop, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology. Fermentech has been supported by Engineers India Limited (EIL) and BIRAC. Till date, it has raised a sum of Rs 87.5 lakh in funding.

Explaining the revenue model, Arora cites example of pine needle pellet manufacturing. “There’s a model under Uttarakhand government where the pine needles are sourced from villages and villagers and are sent into the pellet manufacturing facility. So, from the profit the pellet plant makes, around 10-15% of that profit is returned to the farmer. That is a type of model we also envision which will ensure consistent supply of agro-waste and help in developing a sustainable environment,” he said.

Next on Fermentech’s agenda is setting up of a pilot scale facility for a 150 kg bioreactor, he said.

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