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NNPC diversification and UniProtein concerns

By Sonny Atumah

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC last week in Abuja said it was considering a joint venture partnership with a Danish firm, Unibio for the production of natural gas derived feed protein for animals. The NNPC Group Managing Director represented by the Chief Operating Officer, Ventures, Dr. Babatunde Adeniran disclosed this in a meeting with a Danish delegation led by the Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Torben Gettermann.


With a 10-percent equity financing guarantee by the Danish Government, the Chief Executive Officer of Unibio, Mr. Henrik Bursch-Larsen explained  the new technology known as U Loop Technology. It has been patented and converts natural gas to a single-cell protein product called UniProtein, with an amino acid profile that compares with fishmeal and soymeal.

The UniProtein which was approved by the EU Commission in 2011 for all fish and animals is produced by harnessing a natural fermentation process and mass producing it. In an industrial environment microbes are used to turn natural gas to methane and then converted in a downstream process into high-protein granules for fish and livestock.

This project would not have come at a better time that pressure of value addition and diversification along vertical linkages is uppermost among Nigerians. The new thinking of the NNPC should be to harness the numerous investment opportunities of petroleum to jump start the economy. Better still a structural increase can come if we encourage other companies to invest, imitate technological modes from abroad, encourage domestic innovation, or diffuse new technologies in petroleum.

Nigeria’s population of over 170 million persons which is projected for a triple by 2050 calls for a guaranteed food security with improved protein nutritional requirements. The potentials for producing soya for livestock are decreasing with man’s activities of deforestation. Also fish sources from the oceans to feed other fish are equally not balancing in the ecosystem.

The new technology of methane-made food for feeding farmed fish and livestock is a diversification strategy in addition to using natural gas for fuels, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture. The technology interfaces with synthetic biology for symbiotic relationships between microorganisms and the products we consume. Promoters of the new technology claim it would make feed manufacturers to replace soybeans and fish-meal with bacterial protein meal produced from natural gas which otherwise is flared. Is the soot from the Niger Delta gas flares disappearing if the NNPC buys into it?

But the claim of low environmental impact has been challenged by some experts. They believe that any carbon that is fixed into a food substance is going to be released as CO2 back into the atmosphere thereby accelerating global warming. Others believe that natural gas is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide due to the greater global-warming potential of methane.

Responding in a statement the Head of the Life Cycle Engineering Center, University of Southern Denmark, SDU Henrik Wenzel gave an assessment of the life cycle of the single cell protein and greenhouse gas emissions from the production of UniProtein.

The main sources of greenhouse gas emission from bacterial protein production in general has the methane feedstock, including the supply of the methane/gas; that is the cradle-to-gate emissions, the emission of CO2 during the fermentation and the subsequent consumption of protein and the associated CO2 emission from the digestion of the protein by both livestock and fish and the humans eating the animals afterwards. Others are the electricity consumption for the fermentation, steam consumption, oxygen consumption and ammonia consumption.

The consequences for greenhouse gas emissions from these sources where flare gas is used are: For the methane feedstock; if protein is not produced from the flared gas, it will continue to be flared, as this is the alternative. Therefore, whatever emissions from the sources above, the use of the gas will avoid exactly the same emissions from the flaring of the gas.

The net increase in emissions from these sources will be zero compared with flaring the gas. The Life-cycle assessment, LCA which is a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages will account for it from avoided emissions from flaring which is equal to induced emission from the sources of emissions from UniProtein.

Would the Unibio’s new technology make positive impact on the country’s economy being one of the first to be established in the world? For now, we accept that the net increase in emissions from these sources is zero in the LCA compared to flaring the gas. Nigeria is not yet an emitting nation that Unibio emissions interrogation should be of serious concern.

The NNPC should ensure that Nigeria derives maximum benefit but we must foster relationships among universities, research institutes and the industry to break new grounds like the  Danes.  Unibio collaborated with the Technical University of Denmark, DTU and the Aarhus University on the UniProtein which research project was partly funded by Denmark Innovation Fund.



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