Maggots and data centres – what’s the connection?

by | Sep 10, 2018 | Articles, Innovation | 0 comments

Grub’s up for circular economy data centres

Usually the worlds of modern data centres and maggots do not collide. One involves ultra-secure, clean high-tech facilities with state-of-the-art technology. The other, waste eating grubs that have a similar reputation to cockroaches and are normally associated with rotting food.

Yet, as part of the recent pursuit for a more ‘circular economy’, these two very different industries could well come together.

Utility Yorkshire Water, which supplies 1.3 billion litres of clean water and wastewater services to two million homes daily, is in the process of creating a hub to bring together different industries who wouldn’t normally interact with each other.

Back scratching

The Esholt site is the utility’s second largest works, treating wastewater from 750,000 customers in Bradford and Leeds. Plans are in place to turn the 120-hectare site into what is being named a “circular economy cluster”.

Heat, power, potable/sub-potable water and nutrients will be available to commercial partners on site. Imagine a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ situation but where energy, heat, water and nutrients are brokered between site host Yorkshire Water and neighbouring companies.

One idea is to bring together the data centre, water treatment and scientific community together. A heating network could be developed which could take excess, low grade heat from a data centre located onsite. This company would receive a revenue for the heat but also have access to power and water for cooling, potentially even reclaimed water. In return, the utility would be able to use the data centre.

“We’re not a data storage business and yet we have data centres,” says Jon Brigg, manager of innovation at Yorkshire Water. “One way of this working would be we produce information from our operations which is protected securely in a data centre, right on our doorstep and in return we provide those utility service needed to run such an operation.”

Insect bioconversion

The utility, like many others in the UK and worldwide, is starting to look at how insect bioconversion could be used in its wastewater processing operations. Early discussions have started with FERA Science Ltd (formerly the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) which is now part owned by Defra and part owned by Capita.

In a nutshell, an insect bioconversion process involves feeding insect larvae with organic residue, for example this could be materials from vegetal origin from food processing or agricultural production. When the grubs reach a “critical mass” and are fattened up, they’re harvested for conversion to high value products.

With up to 40% of their body mass made up of lipids, these larvae can be converted into ingredients for wellbeing products or biodiesel, whereas protein isolate from larvae can be processed into animal feed. Early work is also showing that the remaining residue has potential as an active soil nutrient. Another area currently being researched is the potential for conversion of the ‘skin’ from the larvae, which can be readily processed into a flexible, plastic material.

“This represents yet another exciting area of research in how you produce biodegradable packaging films from such a sustainably sourced material from the skin of insects,” says Dr Andrew Swift, CEO of FERA.

Many people have seen the increased availability of edible bugs and insects. Reuters recently ran a story with the headline: “˜Insect farms gear up to feed soaring global protein demand’. Swift firmly believes this is in relation to the “widening protein gap” emerging around the world, predominately in meeting animal feed demands.

“We are on the brink of seeing major organisations scale up substantially for this,” he says. “Around the world to our knowledge there are now in the region of 20 companies working on insect bioconversion commercially at various scales. Two years ago, this was less than five.” Clearly, the business of bugs is about to boom. Last summer Netherlands-based Protix secured €45 million from private investor Rabobank to expand its insect production capability for the animal feed industry.

Even global companies such as Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, McDonalds and major retailers are reportedly watching and looking at how insects can be considered an alternative source of protein for the food chain.

BSE fall-out

Looping back to Yorkshire, it’s important to note that under current EU legislation, if the insect bioconversion process were to be used on wastewater, products could not be used in any part of the food chain.

Simply put: larvae produced for animal feed cannot be fed on materials such as catering waste, manure or slaughterhouse derived products. This is all strictly governed by European law, led by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and follows the fall-out from the BSE crisis from the 1980s, according to Swift.

Elsewhere in the world, you could still use insect protein produced out of municipal waste or sewage and sell it to the markets for feed, the CEO adds.

Regardless of the current limitations, Brigg is optimistic about the potential of these developments. “Insect bioconversion could be a way to convert sewage sludge into insect derived lipids in the future, the great thing is you don’t lose anything in the cycle.

“At the moment, sludge to agriculture helps to recover nutrients but that’s on a mass scale and it’s expensive. In principle, by using insect bioreactors it may be possible to get all of the benefits of the nutrients but just recover from the insects in a more focused and subscribed manner.”

Teamwork makes the dream work

Traditionally the worlds of insect bioconversion and data centres would normally be strangers, unless there was an emergency case of a bug infestation.

However, in the circular economy spirit where one man’s waste is another man’s treasure, it could well see water treatment facilities brought together with a data centre, insect bioconversion and other industries in the mix as well. Rather than operating in silos, the co-located facilities would work in harmony, giving and taking in equal measure without any waste by-product having to leave the site.

Although such a collaboration is still in the early stages and subject to research, its potential certainly provides some food for thought, especially the next time you tuck into a packet of edible bugs.