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Changing Food Sustainability One Tree at a Time

Pongamia tree against a sunny sky
Credit: Bishnu Sarangi / Pixabay
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Pongamia is a fast-growing, wide-canopied tree species native to much of Asia and the Pacific. Able to thrive in harsh places where other plants would not survive, the pongamia tree is becoming a popular option for reforestation efforts in the region.

The pongamia also produces beans with a high nutritional value. However, their unpleasant taste has limited the wider use of these beans and their extracted oil. Now, scientists at Terviva working in partnership with experts from Koch Modular Process Systems have developed a large-scale process that is capable of removing this overpowering bitterness. With this new transformation, they believe that pongamia could become a mainstream, more sustainable alternative to palm oil and soy.

Technology Networks recently spoke with Tom Schafer, vice president at Koch Modular Process Systems, to learn more about pongamia, this new process and the potential uses for pongamia oil.

Alexander Beadle (AB): Can you give us an overview of pongamia and its role as a food source on the planet?

Tom Schafer (TS):
 An undervalued resource, the climate-resilient pongamia tree is a quick-growing legume tree found in subtropical regions worldwide. Pongamia is uniquely suited to meet today’s environmental challenges because it sequesters carbon, revitalizes soil health and improves water quality while growing on land where other crops can’t grow.

This helps avoid deforestation and revitalize agricultural lands. In Indonesia, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) witnessed this firsthand when they were amazed that newly-planted pongamia trees were thriving in degraded peatlands.

The pongamia tree produces beans that can be compared to soybeans, packed with nutritious protein and oil. Pongamia optimizes subprime agriculture while yielding more beans per acre than soy. Previously unavailable as a food source due to the pongamia tree’s beans and consumable oil being exceptionally bitter, it is now available as a food source through Terviva’s innovation to produce edible pongamia food ingredients.

AB: What current challenges are associated with pongamia oil supply and access? Are there initiatives in place to address these issues?

The oil produced from the pongamia bean is nutrient-rich and high in omega-9s. The caveat is that, as previously mentioned, the oil derived from the bean is very bitter. Terviva developed a process to remove the bitterness and produce a lightly refined oil with high smoke point suitable for a variety of food applications. Pongamia trees are increasing in population to help reforestation, but the tree itself isn’t being used at the total capacity it should, given its lack of food supply production.

Terviva is a regenerative food and agricultural company addressing this issue head-on by producing healthy, plant-based food ingredients from the beans of pongamia trees. Terviva recently developed a bench-scale process that debitters pongamia oil by removing the suite of flavonoids from the oil. The product is a smooth-tasting oil that is high in nutrition.

To turn their process into a full-scale cohesive manufacturing process, they partnered with Koch Modular for our expertise and knowledge of pure chemical engineering, enabling us to bring the process to fruition.

When Terviva initially approached us, we were intrigued by the benefits that this edible pongamia process could provide for the planet. This process opens up an entirely new door to food sustainability; it will be the gift that keeps giving for generations to come.

Engaging with Terviva early on allowed us to vet the process of designing and scaling a safe operating plant together. This is important because when the demonstration plant is ready for start-up, it will do precisely what the customer wants.

AB: What are the different ways the oil from pongamia beans can be used?

The oil extracted from the pongamia beans is a smooth-tasting oil that can be used in a variety of ways in food preparation. This is a considerable advancement in the agricultural world because pongamia oil has not been available as a food ingredient until now. It can now replace other oils such as canola, peanut, soybean and sunflower. Additionally, pongamia oil has a nutritional index that surpasses many of the oils typically used today. Edible pongamia oil will soon be a legitimate disruptor in the oil industry.

When we take on projects at Koch Modular, sustainability is vital to the processes and projects we are involved in. We aim to develop a process efficiently so that no waste comes from any plant, thus closing the loop.

Historically, pongamia oil has been used in other industries, such as the personal care market for traditional medicine applications. With Terviva’s process, the leftover flavonoids can continue to be used for just that. Various countries worldwide need flavonoids for pharmaceutical skin treatments and topical creams.

AB: What was the process like to develop from bench-scale to large-scale? Were there any advantages or challenges you had to overcome?

Terviva’s process involves generating two products: the edible oil and the flavonoid-rich extract. The oil is pressed out of the pods and pretreated to prepare the oil for processing. From there, it becomes ready for extraction, whereby the crude oil is introduced to remove the unwanted flavonoids.

Our role in this process was to fine-tune and de-risk the process so that scaling up from the lab bench to full manufacturing scale would result in minimal errors. We took the basic concepts that were developed by Terviva and modeled them with Aspen modeling software, which enabled us to complete a conceptual process design. Once the modeling was complete, the crude oil drum quantities were sent to our pilot plant in Houston, Texas, where we performed tests.

Data generated at the pilot plant in Houston taught us a lot about the process and the changes needed to succeed. Early in our research, we noticed that the process carried out by Terviva needed to be fine-tuned. This had a significant impact on downstream aspects of the process.

Another lesson we learned occurred during the solvent recovery steps. In some cases, the modeling software didn’t correctly predict the vapor pressure of some compounds and impurities. Slightly different pressures were tested to correct the process.

The critical takeaway here is that pilot testing is necessary within the chemical processing industry to enable successful scale-up for a solvent extraction process. The physical properties of fluids don't allow engineers to foresee the behavior of how the liquids will react in an extraction system.

AB: Will this oil be available this year? What project updates can you provide on this partnership?

We are currently building the demonstration-scale process system in one of our controlled environment fabrication shops. Delivery to a site in New Orleans, Louisiana, should be summer of 2023. The next step will be to refine and tune our process even more before building our Generation Two plant, which will provide ten times the oil capacity.  

PonovaTM oil is currently available as a new ingredient in Aloha’s Kona Bar, a sustainable protein bar that supports regenerative farming. Sold on Aloha’s website and at Thrive Market in the United States, 10% of sales are donated to Kupu, a leading youth conservation nonprofit that expands Teriva’s mission to revitalize land and communities through the production of pongamia. 

Tom Schafer was speaking to Alexander Beadle, Science Writer for Technology Networks.