In 5 steps to sustainably scale up production of plant proteins

05/04/2022

Get forty food specialists from Bilfinger Tebodin to rack their brains about energy savings in protein production. The result is eight concepts in one day. This happened during a special food day where all of Bilfinger Tebodin’s food specialists came together. “We have an enormous amount of knowledge in the group,” says spray drying specialist Reindrik Huizing. “Plant proteins are coming up tremendously. How do you tackle that scaling up in a sustainable way? We thought about that together using 5 steps.”

Energy savings and proteins. A number of process specialists who normally advise the dairy, sugar and potato processing industries have been looking at the growing protein market. “With existing food clients and a number of startups we have already gained experience, but recently we dissected the protein process again together. What exactly does the process look like?” says Reindrik Huizing, Manager Engineering at Bilfinger Tebodin. What turns out? Many of the issues are not new. “There is just a different packaging around them.”

Scale up in five steps

Plant-based proteins are on the rise. How do you tackle that increase in scale and how do you produce them in a sustainable way? Especially in these times when energy costs are through the roof. Huizing: “This is an extra motivation to set things up differently and to look closely at the possibilities and impossibilities.” The team of food specialists at Bilfinger Tebodin came up with the following steps:

1. What product is involved?

To begin with, it is determined what kind of product is being made. What are the raw materials and what are the process steps? “A soybean has very different properties and passes through very different process steps than raw milk, for example,” says Huizing. What is the application of the product and what are the producer’s future plans for the product? That has to come out as well.

2. What are the quality aspects of the product?

The quality of the product must not deteriorate when the process is modified. Which quality aspects play a role in this? Which quality parameters are critical and where is still room for improvement? These questions are answered in step 2.

3. What does the process look like?

What are the process steps? Walk through the process and see if the process is more broadly applicable. What stands out in the process? Are there any challenges in the process design? What about the cleaning? Can the piping be cleaned fully automatically? Huizing: “Is there a clear requirement with regard to water consumption? Then we have to think about extra technology. That will have to be placed somewhere.”

4. What is the client’s need?

Huizing: “We often see different types of clients in food. From startups to large companies. The somewhat larger companies have other questions than a startup. In addition, larger companies are often used to working on a project basis. Smaller companies need a little more guidance. Each segment needs its own approach. We establish that in this step.”

5. Is the business case feasible?

What is the room for maneuver? Looking at the current energy costs, is changing the process feasible? Do we focus on a whole new process or do we look at improving existing (sub)processes? What is the client’s leeway? Can the plan be implemented at the current location? Is it structurally feasible without demolishing half of the factory? Huizing: “Often the client has already thought about the business case, but it is not good enough to enter the market. What you often see is that all the costs have not yet been fully included; we help our clients identify the costs and their magnitude.”

Eight scenarios

Using a real-life case of a large company looking to scale up protein production and seeking an alternative to spray drying, Bilfinger Tebodin’s team of food specialists came up with eight different scenarios. “With the information we got from this client, we started brainstorming and listed the advantages and disadvantages from the process concept.”

The drying process costs a lot of energy

In many food processes a lot of water has to be removed, making it one of the most energy-intensive process parts in the production process. Different techniques are possible for this, but many clients use a dryer. Actually in all process steps a lot of energy is used, according to Huizing. “In practice we often see that companies want to upgrade a protein product suitable for feed to food so that it can be used for food, for example for processing in meat and dairy substitutes. However, the biggest outlet is still feed. Steps are needed to go to foodgrade,” Huizing said. “If companies want to enter the food market, we take them into that mindset.”

The first step is to increase efficiency by looking at the possibilities of reusing residual heat. After all, any CO2 we save does not need to be replaced. We can then electrify this optimized process. However, ‘is there enough room on the network?’ is one of the questions that must be answered. Or will natural gas have to be replaced by another energy carrier after all? Wat else are the alternatives to spray drying? “What we are also looking at is whether you can keep the product in a liquid phase. Drying is only done for the logistics. After all, the client also liquefies it again. Can the product be stabilized properly in liquid form? That is then an important point to investigate,” says Huizing.

Difference between startup and large company

Bilfinger Tebodin sees a lot of difference between their clients. From large companies operating on an existing site with issues that are an extension of the process solution, to startups looking to move into commercial-scale production and start from scratch. “In a greenfield project, where you start from scratch, it is fun to build,” Huizing agrees. “With a proven process, you can start drawing out a demo plant from a blank piece of paper.”

IT IS OUR ROLE TO TRY TO REMOVE THE CLIENT’S BLINDERS

The other way around also happens, think of existing meat producers who start producing alternative meat and want to convert their existing plant. Huizing: “We have a lot of experience with both greenfield and brownfield projects. In any case, in food you are strongly dependent on the knowledge that the client brings. If all goes well they have also looked at things themselves. The client is therefore an important sparring partner. You do it together. Our role is to try to remove the client’s blinders and move them away from the familiar pattern of thinking. We have very broad knowledge, a large network and like to think out-of-the-box.”

Marketing waste streams

In everything Bilfinger Tebodin does, the company puts its sustainable signature on it. “Circular thinking is in our blood. When we come up with a solution, we always look at whether marketing waste streams, for example, will make the business case more interesting. On all large projects we do a sustainability check, whether a client wants it or not. We always look at whether we can save energy or waste. As a process engineer, you want to put down a good design. You want to get as much out of it as possible in terms of sustainability. You will have to consider that right at the start. Especially if you want to obtain a sustainability certificate. Everything you start doing afterwards is a huge task.”

So how are these eight scenarios progressing?

“The client was present at the food day. We hope to have given a nice overview of our ideas. The solutions that have been put forward still need to be tested. We are now going to discuss the scenarios further with the people from this company’s innovation center,” said Huizing.

Huizing: “Based on the information we received, we are going to do ‘technology scouting’. What works and what does not? Then we will take steps that could theoretically work. These are then tested. Together with the innovation center we will look at what is feasible and hope to be able to develop one scenario commercially.”

Huizing does note that rapid implementation is not always an option at this time. “With the current delivery times it is not always possible anymore. On a quotation for stainless steel recently, there was a validity of one day. Everyone wants to become more sustainable, which is why you see a run on the market. The capacity in the market is limited on many fronts. You can have so many great ideas, but someone will have to build it. There is also the licensing process, which can sometimes take a long time. Let’s hope there won’t be another nitrogen crisis.”