Coal as cow feed?

By Andrew Joseph, Editor

Centuries before Coal was used to heat homes, be they castles or peasant huts, it was used in smelting, specifically the smelting of copper to create swords and other hand-held weaponry, initially by the Chinese about 3,000 years ago.

Heated for home warmth, it was only about 300 years ago when Coal first saw more significant usage as an Industrial Revolution fuel.

Abraham Darby (1678–1717) of England is credited with being the first to smelt iron ore with coke in a forge and the developer of blast furnaces.

Thomas Newcomen may have developed the first steam engine in 1712 to help pump water out of the constantly flooding mines, but in 1776, James Watt created a steam engine that ran on burning Coal converted to steam—a process that introduced the railroad industry. The status quo was maintained until the 1950s when electric and diesel locomotives were introduced.

Until then, the railroad and steel industries brought about a near-insatiable demand for Coal.

However, like it or not, Coal is not a clean-burning fossil fuel; it was made from plants that were once alive millions of years ago. And while we can set the stage to make more Coal, it won’t be in a recognizable coal form for more than those millions of years.

Nowadays, according to and the federal Ministry of Natural Resources, “Coal is used for generating electricity, manufacturing steel and cement, and various industrial and residential applications. Canada produced 47.6 Mt [metric tonnes] of Coal in 2021, of which 61 percent is metallurgical Coal used for manufacturing steel, and 39 percent is thermal Coal used for generating electricity.

What else can Coal be used for? How about using it for cow feed?

No one suggests opening a bag of briquettes and letting the cows chow down on them.

However, researchers in China say they have developed a method for converting Coal into a protein-rich livestock feed. This will allow farmers to use their land better to create human-grade crop yields.

Because not all corn yields are grown equally, Emily Cassidy and other researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment explain that humans eat 55 percent of the world’s crop calories; 36 percent are consumed as animal feed, and the remaining nine percent is used to create various types of biofuels or for other industrial uses.

What if the land used to create animal feed was put to better use?

The Chinese research team has suggested that to create its coal-based protein animal feed, only 1/1,000th as much land is required to make the same amount of feed. That means the other 999/1,000th of the land used to grow animal feed can be repurposed to create better food security and greener fuel options.

For those decrying our mad-western philosophy of eating lots of meat—this writer must be mad, too—that we waste our fields for animals that eat foods grown on other fields, coal-to-animal food protein seems like a win-win without making meat lovers adjust their tastebuds.

Although there is a push to produce lab-grown meat, we are unsure what the general public’s response would be. People are more likely to like things they are familiar with.

Meat grown in a Petrie dish does not sound as stimulating or appealing as meat processed from a cow, pig, chicken, etc.

But what about a cow, pig, chicken, etc., that ate feed derived from Coal? As long as the flavour is familiar as a meat protein, there should be less pushback to its acceptance by consumers.

However, we are talking about North American consumers here.

We know many people across Canada are adventurous and will sample hachi no ko (a Japanese meal of baby bees, aka bee larvae) or apply powdered cricked into a flour base to make baked goods.

For others, being adventurous might mean trying hakka (a cuisine derived from mixing Chinese and Indian cultures) or learning that sashimi is actually “raw fish” and that they would indeed prefer a roll of avocado-filled sushi.

And still, for others, it might be trying a new restaurant offering pulled pork or a southern place dishing out some hominy grits that they’ve heard about but have no clue what they are.

Still others define adventure as trying a fancy burger not from the wonderful McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, or Harvey’s.

So, as long as the meat quality is NOT affected by beef cows eating coal-derived feed proteins or the milk from dairy cows remains the white colour we are used to (the writer loves egg nog and chocolate milk, too, but he is talking about milk as it comes fresh out of the animal), there could be a move forward.

Although the technology here is from China, this is a science we need to be aware of.

Oil + Coal = Food

Biotech researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) know that China has to import about 80 percent of its raw protein from crops like soybeans. Relying on other countries for food puts China in its food security quagmire.

Should politics get in the way, the country could suddenly be short of the needed protein.

It was one of the reasons why the CAS looked at using fossil fuels to produce edible proteins. For the researchers, it was also a way to build on the oil-to-protein biotechnology first pioneered by gas giant BP (British Petroleum) in the 1960s.

1960, after WWII, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) described a protein gap between the world’s haves and the have-nots. It showed that 25 percent of the global population lacked proper protein in their daily diet.

In the 1960s, there was a food shortage involving protein, and it was recognized that it would only get worse soon.

To combat the issue, food yeast was developed as an industry, with the USSR producing about 900,000 tons of food yeast and fodder yeast in 1970.

In the 1960s, BP researchers developed a “proteins-from-oil” process in which yeast-fed waxy n-paraffins, a byproduct of oil refineries, produced a single-cell protein.

According to the UN, our planet’s population hit eight billion in November 2022 and is expected to reach nine billion by 2037. Even while people on Earth starve from a lack of food daily, things may get worse—hence an effort by all UN-chartered countries to reduce GHG gases and work to ensure food security dilemmas are contained or, in the best-case scenario, forever removed.

Chinese Food

One of the most exciting things about Chinese food—and by this, we mean authentic cuisine from China, not necessarily from that industrial mall staple near your house—is that every region and every city has its style and flavour.

To quote the phrase from the 1994 film Forrest Gump: “My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

Although we certainly know what’s inside nowadays thanks to the “photo menu” within boxes of assorted chocolates—sorry for destroying the allure of what was a great Forrest line—with Chinese food, there is a tremendous diversity.

Regarding the coal-derived animal feed proteins, the food must be nutritious and not create more GHG gas emissions from cow “burping” et al.

Do we know if cows eating this new coal-soul food emit fewer gases, the same, or more?

First, we should at least examine how it is made.

Coal is turned into methanol using gasification. This writer is unsure if this method was used. Still, this type of gasification can be done with “near” zero carbon gas emissions via a pulverized coal gasification-integrated green hydrogen process.

Methanol is fed to a particular strain of Pichia pastoris yeast. The yeast is then allowed to ferment, producing a single-cell protein.

This protein contains many amino acids, vitamins, inorganic salts, fats, and carbohydrates.

Because this yeast is richer in protein than plants, it can partially replace fish, soybeans, meat, and skimmed milk in animal feeds.

The Chinese researchers said their key innovation was determining, selecting, and then genetically engineering the yeast strain used.

Don’t worry—all they did was make the yeast better tolerate the toxic effects of methanol. That allowed the yeast strain to have a better maximum conversion efficiency while minimizing the amount of carbon lost during the process.

No, it doesn’t seem they used the green hydrogen process mentioned earlier. However, there is an opportunity for some research teams.

The result of this modified yeast and application was that the yeast could convert methanol into protein at 92 percent of the maximum theoretical yield of the process.

According to the researchers, it’s “a cost-effective option for the industrial production of protein.”

The researchers are apparently in a deal with an undisclosed manufacturing partner to begin industrial-scale demonstrations that have already produced, according to the team, “thousands of tonnes of this protein in a plant.”


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