Turning insects into bio-processing machines could be the solution to feeding our future colonies on Mars

The black soldier fly is one of the best bugs in the biz.
The black soldier fly is one of the best bugs in the biz.
Image: Ian Jacobs, shared through a CC BY-NC 2.0 license on Flickr
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Chocolate cakes, protein bars, and various other dishes made of insects have shown up in the news so often in recent years that most of us have become somewhat used to the idea that the cockroach is (sort of, maybe) the new chicken.

It’s good we’re on our way to accepting bugs as a real option for protein, because our current diet is astonishingly resource-hungry. Livestock production takes more than 30% of the ice-free land of this planet, consumes 8% of our potable water, and is responsible for nearly 15% of the total man-made greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere every year. And demand for meat is projected to grow 60% by 2050. That’s why scientist from all over the world are looking for more economically and environmentally viable solutions to let us keep eating burgers.

But Damian Jozefiak, a professor at the Poznan University of Life Sciences, believes insects offer much more than protein. He thinks they can become bio-processing units working in fully automated, remotely controlled smart factories producing high-quality proteins, fats for the pharmaceutical industry, and biofuels—all using different kinds of waste as raw materials.

Jozefiak is CEO and co-founder of HiProMine, a company that in August 2015 completed a prototype of this sort of insect-driven factory in Robakowo, Poland. The name Robakowo translates into something like “Wormsville.”

“Our idea is pretty simple,” says Jozefiak. “We feed insects with bio-waste and process them into various useful and sustainable products.” The Robakowo factory, located on the outskirts of Poznan, a major city in western Poland, takes waste produced by the nearby meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetable industries, and then distributes it among numerous insect-based bioreactors, each containing a different species of insect. HiProMine is experimenting with nearly 30 bugs to come up with ideal waste-insect combinations. Among the projects: harvesting the insects for low-cost fats and proteins to use in beauty products and human foods, respectively, and breeding bugs for use in specialized animal feed that stimulates digestion in animal.

The idea of large-scale insect breeding is nearly as old as human civilization. Silkworms have been utilized in silk production for nearly 5,000 years in China. Aztecs and Incas cultivated cochineals as a source of carmine, a red dye used to color wool and even lipstick. But apart from these, most contemporary industrial applications of insects are basically just add-ons for existing infrastructure: a farm recycling module that uses worms to digest manure or a biowaste disposal system for a household with fly larvae feeding on septic tank sludge, to name two examples. Most importantly, all of them utilize one or two species of insects—not elaborate systems involving dozens of them.

HiProMine will definitely use the black soldier fly, which, in larvae form, can feed on a wide range of decaying organic materials, such as rotting fruits and vegetables, coffee bean pulp, distiller’s grain (a byproduct from the beer brewing process), fish offal, animal manure, and human waste. The black soldier fly has become one of the most extensively researched and commonly utilized insects. In large part that’s because you can manipulate the fly’s biological makeup easily based on what you feed it. Give the black soldier fly poultry manure, and its body mass will be 40-44% protein and 15-25% fat. Want more fat? Give it oil-rich food waste and the amount of fat will jump up to nearly 50%. That’s useful when you are trying to create tons of fat to sell to a customer in the beauty industry.

And the factory will definitely produce protein for foods. Jozefiak can tick off the benefits of insects over traditional protein sources like poultry and cattle, including less space needed, lower greenhouse gas emissions, quicker production cycles, and lower water and energy needed.

But what makes HiProMine exciting is that it will be incredibly diverse, using insects ranging from grasshoppers and locusts to mealworms and cockroaches. “All have their own specificity, their own requirements, and can be processed into different chemical compounds,” says Jozefiak. To accommodate all these bugs, the factory in Robakowo has a large production hall, with shallow containers filled with larvae and all other writhing, buzzing creatures, set up vertically along the walls. Yet it needs just a few people to operate it, because almost everything can be done remotely, using software built to control the whole process and equipment.

Human personnel, even working in shifts 24/7, simply wouldn’t be able to keep track of all the details, all the necessary minute changes of humidity, ventilation, temperature, and oxygen levels to keep the insects happy. “That’s why our factory is automated, controlled predominantly by robots,” says Jozefiak. Now, with Uber’s investment secured, HiProMine is buying new equipment. Currently, at the prototype stage, the facility’s output is approximately 15 tons of insects per month, but according to the team that number will be significantly higher by the end of the year.

Others certainly believe in the vision. Uber just invested in HiProMine, joining Giza Polish Ventures, a Polish-Israeli venture capital fund.

There’s a pretty straightforward growth plan: versions of their Robakowo factory can be built anywhere and work with resources available locally. No need to import anything from half a world away. “In theory it could work even in Antarctica,” says Jozefiak. Other members team go even further: “Think either Mars or Moon,” says Noemi Malska, HiproMine’s COO.

HiProMine is now designing a bioreactor suitable for manned deep space missions and sustaining human habitats on other planets. Recently the company became a part of M.A.R.S., a project aimed to build a full-scale model of a Martian base to serve as a testbed for space industry under the patronage of Polish Space Agency. “Here on Earth our technology is economically attractive and environmentally friendly, which is nice,” says Malska. “But on Mars such things as low energy consumption, high efficiency, and most of all, an ability to work independently of the outside world, will be a matter of life and death.”

Malska thinks their product checks all the boxes—all that’s left to figure out is how insects would fare in zero- or reduced-gravity conditions. “We’re waiting for the agency to test it,” she says. But she’s confident: “I can say Matt Damon in The Martian wouldn’t need to bother with potatoes if he had this thing.”

Photo above was taken by Ian Jacobs and shared through a CC BY-NC 2.0 license on Flickr.