Swedish start-up tackling methane emissions in cattle attracts investors

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

Methane reducing Swedish start-up attracts investors

Related tags: methane emissions, Dairy, Beef, seaweed, Beef, Livestock

Swedish start-up, Volta Greentech, just closed a SEK 5m (US$500K) funding round to expand pilot production of a product derived from the red seaweed, Asparagopsis, to reduce methane emissions in cows.

Participants in the funding round included investor, Claes Dinkenspiel, the Kjell & Märta Beijers Foundation, and several angel investors.

The latest funding round means Volta Greentech has generated SEK 8m in capital to date. The company said it also has backing by Peter Carlsson, CEO at Northvolt, the super angel Hampus Jakobsson, and Joachim Karthäuser, CTO at Climeon.

In terms of securing the funding, Fredrik Åkerman, co-founder and CEO of Volta Greentech, told us: “We have noticed a lot of support for these kinds of initiatives. There are a lot of people out there who want to support a reduction in emissions in all sectors.”

Background

Volta Greentech’s idea is based on scientific evidence​ from Australia which indicated that a small amount of red seaweed in cow diets could reduce up to 80% of cattle methane production, without any negative side effects. The discovery, said the start-up, is backed by over six years of published research ​from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis).

Åkerman told us that it was as an exchange student at UC Berkeley that he became aware of what was being done at UC Davis and that inspired him to explore further the potential of red seaweed to reduce livestock related methane emissions.

“At UC Berkeley,I took on the topic as a research project, trying to understand how we could solve this big challenge, commercialize this research, and get [a product] out to as many farmers as possible.

“I started to realize there that there is such a huge potential in the solution but there are not that many out there tackling the issues involved in such production, such as how to produce Asparagopsis at scale, how to make sure the product produced is safe, etc. I partnered up with my two co-founders [who have molecular biology and commercial and marketing backgrounds respectively] when I came back to Sweden, and we then started the company, which was one and half years ago.”  

Volta now has six employees in total, he said.

Åkerman outlined two main challenges in getting the red seaweed-based solution to scale.

“The first one is, when we have the product, how do we create economic incentives for the whole food industry - the famers, the dairy companies, the food retailers - to use the product to reduce methane emissions generated from beef and milk production. So we are now working very actively to partner up with famers, dairy companies and retailers in order to map out a different model for this solution.

“Another issue is that there are so many cows in the world and there is a limited amount of seaweed, so we need to find a way of producing it a scale. We have a lab in Stockholm, where we are growing Asparagopsis and doing so very successfully, getting good growth rates. And we have just moved into a pilot facility in Lysekil, on the Swedish west coast, where we will develop prototypes for how we will grow the seaweed in a cost-effective land-based system at scale.”

That facility has all necessary approvals secured to start the cultivation. “It will take some time to optimize the system and make sure we have a good method for producing the seaweed product but, by the end of this year, we hope to have the facility fully operational.”

The pilot unit is located close the ocean as the company wants to reuse the seawater, leverage the nutrients in that. So the facility uses piped sea water. “We are also using waste heat from a nearby oil refinery to ensure the water is always maintained at optimal temperature.”

The company has not yet determined the most effective drying method, that evaluation will be done as part of the pilot production phase. And the actual application approach, how the final product will be delivered to cows, is also under review. The product could take the form of a granular or pellet-based feed, based on a particular farmer’s needs. 

Trials

Early in-vitro studies carried out by the start-up on the seaweed showed it can generate a reduction in methane emissions by 26% under ‘normal’ cultivation conditions. But when the seaweed is grown with the cultivation recipe that Volta Greentech has developed, to increase accumulation of bromoform and other compounds, the team says that they have validated 98% methane reduction in-vitro. 

Volta Greentech will also be carrying out feeding trials using Swedish cows in collaboration with academics based at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

We are also planning commercial studies on farms connected to our partners in the food industry in Sweden.”

Feed intake

UC Davis studies have shown feed intake can be affected when cows are fed seaweed:

What they were using though in that research was wild harvested seaweed. Cows don’t really like the taste. There are many ways of making a final seaweed derived product tastier for animals. If we can find ways of increasing the active compounds in the Asparagopsis, we can lower the final inclusion rate and, in that way, tackle any palatability issues. The goal, of course, is that dairy cows would not eat less feed and would not have reduced milk output, rather the opposite,” ​explained Åkerman.

Bromoform debate

Speaking to this publication back in January​, Dr Jan Dijkstra, associate professor, ruminant nutrition, Wageningen University, cautioned that Asparagopsis ​based solutions might not be a realistic strategy to battle climate change due to a number of hurdles.

There are questions about the stability over time of bromoform, the active ingredient in this type of seaweed, said Dijkstra. That compound is an ozone depleting substance and is also potentially carcinogenic, he added.

Commenting on such concerns about that compound, Angelo Demeter, Volta Greentech co-founder and its chief scientist, explained that bromoform is a halogenated compound that is produced by most marine plants as a defense mechanism and that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that bromoform and dibromochloromethane, the second most abundant anti-methanogenic compound in the seaweed, are not classifiable as human carcinogens.

On the other hand, organizations such as the EPA [in the US] have labeled bromoform as a potential human carcinogen following studies carried out in mice and rats.

“However, these studies showed bromoform’s toxicity at doses higher than anything close to real life applications. Doses of 100 to 500 times more than what any cow would get per kg body weight were used in rats and mice studies to show that, after long exposure, there can be malignant growths,” ​continued Demeter.

The scientists behind the mitigation of methane through macroalgae-based supplementation of feed are proving that bromoform should not be of concern, stressed Demeter. He added that those experts have not found the compound to significantly accumulate in any secretion - milk, urine - or in tissue or organs as per the animal trials and tests performed so far when compared to control animals.

“As an example, a dairy cattle trial published by UC Davis in 2019 showed that the numerical increase in bromoform levels, which was not statistically significant compared to the control group, is 500 times less than the US limit for bromoform levels in water/milk," ​said Demeter.

That 2019 paper​ from UC Davis stated:

“Human consumption of high levels of bromoform could be hazardous, so the US EPA (2018) has set drinking water regulations on bromoform consumption to 80 μg/L. 

“Milk produced by cows fed the low and high Asparagopsis additive were in the range of 0.11 – 0.15 μg/L, which is over 500 times lower than the maximum standard.’'

Benefits of the indoor farming model

Åkerman added that land-based models of seaweed cultivation would control any environmental impact of bromoform release as the indoor farming aspect enables ventilation systems to counter that.

Farmers and the food sector, he added, are in favor of using natural remedies in respect of lowering methane emissions, a condition that seaweed-based solutions meet.

Policymakers, he stressed, could play a bigger role, though, in encouraging business models like that of Volta Greentech, he said.

There is little, he continued, in the way of European legislation on methane emission reduction to help the industry move in the right direction, he said, compared to New Zealand or in the US, in California, where policy developments in this respect are underway.

Hopefully, we can help drive the development of such legislative action, in collaboration with our food industry partners.”   

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