Researchers to assess environmental impact of meat alternative production

Class project gets boost with a $125,000 industry grant

August 12, 2022

By Sarah Small

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Global greenhouse emissions from animal-based food production are twice those of plant-based foods, and companies such as Motif FoodWorks are working to creating more appealing and sustainable plant-based options for consumers. One of their methods involves using a special ingredient of yeast-derived, heme-binding protein to deliver the taste and aromas of real beef.

Motif connected with Penn State Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Rui Shi after learning that chemical engineering senior students completed preliminary designs for heme protein production during their capstone design course. Motif awarded Shi a $125,000 grant to explore the environmental impacts of two of Motif’s products: HEMAMITM protein, used in the company’s plant-based burgers, and APPETEXTM, which mimics the texture of animal tissue.

“Our undergraduate students, especially the gen-Z students, are very interested in sustainability concepts and sustainable products, such as plant-based meat alternatives,” said Shi, who is also affiliated with the Institutes of Energy and the Environment. “In the chemical engineering senior design course, we investigated the fermentation and purification processes of heme protein, the key ingredient in plant-based meat.” 

Nicholas Schneider, a chemical engineering master’s degree student working on the project, said that the experience has provided insight into sustainability as it pertains to the food industry.

“With the food industry being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emission, I've enjoyed seeing industry look for innovative solutions to help drive global emissions down,” he said.

Shi said the success of that work inspired her to move forward with the industry-sponsored research project to assess sustainability implications of Motif’s heme protein production and the heme-containing plant-based burger. Shi’s research group will develop a life cycle assessment (LCA) and analyze the material flow, energy flow, water usage and waste streams of the production pathway. The LCA will include acquisition of feedstocks, transportation of raw materials, manufacturing processes, operations at the production facility and the distribution and storage of the final product.

“Through this research project, our team will elucidate the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, land use, among other impact categories, and compare with conventional ground beef products,” Shi said. “This study will also cover uncertainty and sensitivity analysis to chart innovation pathways for the meat analogue industry.”


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