Driving a new sustainable healthy food source while taking care of the planet

June 28, 2023

Pongamia is a subtropical tree species that has agricultural superpowers. It is a climate-friendly legume that can grow on just about any land, regardless of how degraded the land is either by pesticide overuse or the lack of irrigation it receives. The tree is also environmentally friendly as it sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen and revitalizes soils. Because of these many benefits, the pongamia tree has a history of reforestation in places such as India and Madagascar.

The pongamia tree also produces beans packed with nutritious protein and oil, similar to soybeans. The difference is that pongamia beans produce more yield per acre than soybeans. The oil extracted from the bean is extremely bitter, which was inedible until recently.

Two companies — Terviva and Koch Modular Process Systems — are passionate about driving global change by using the pongamia tree as a way to feed the world’s growing population. These companies are working together to develop a process that enables the oil of the pongamia beans to be consumable.

Processing recently connected with Tom Schafer, vice president at Koch Modular, and Olivier Raffray, vice president of products and processing at Terviva, to learn more about the collaboration, which is intended to avoid deforestation and revitalize agricultural lands worldwide by providing a sustainable food source to the world’s growing population.

Q: How did Terviva and Koch Modular start to work together?

OR: Terviva is a regenerative food and agricultural company that produces healthy plant-based food ingredients from the beans of pongamia trees. Three years ago, Terviva developed a proprietary process that completely de-bitters pongamia oil by removing the suite of flavonoids from the oil, resulting in a smooth-tasting product. The process was developed at a bench scale and is more efficient than the typical refined, bleached and deodorized (RBD) process used to manufacture edible oil.

The process was developed with a combination of discoveries that stem not only from the manufacturing of the product but the harvesting of the bean (i.e., the bean's shell, crush efficiency, etc.). It was through those discoveries and university partnerships, working in the company’s internal lab in Alameda, California, and the crush plant in Florida that the process was developed.

After developing the process, we knew we had to partner with Koch Modular to turn the processes into a full-scale, cohesive manufacturing process. Tervivia doesn’t have the in-house knowledge of pure chemical engineering required to develop a successful process. Several unit operations needed to be tested, evaluated and optimized efficiently.

TS: It’s important to note that Terviva sought us out very early in their process. As a result, we went through vetting the process with them to design and scale a safe, flexible operating plant that will do exactly what the customer expects once it arrives and is ready for startup.

Most of our customers come to us for our process design expertise, such as liquid-liquid extraction, evaporation and distillation. One of the biggest challenges we see in the chemical processing industry is ultimately developing the process technology to fuel the end goal. Investment is at risk unless you have vetted the technology and at least proven it on a small scale, which most major companies do.

Q: What niche problems/interests are you trying to address?

OR: Our goal is to drive a global, sustainable, healthy, plant-based food source for the growing population that can benefit the consumer and Earth’s environment. Through this effort, the pongamia trees will increase the economic productivity of land and agricultural communities. Additionally, planting pongamia trees will improve local soil composition and the overall health of the atmosphere, regardless of existing environmental challenges.

Q: Can you briefly explain the process and what the beginning of your partnership looked like?

TS: The overall process involves removing the flavonoids from the oil. Oil is pressed out of pods and degummed, which becomes ready for solvent extraction. During solvent extraction, a food-grade product is used to remove the flavonoids. You end up with two product streams from the solvent extraction step: 1. good oil with some solvent and 2. solvent containing the flavonoids.

Koch Modular took the basic concepts from Terviva and modeled them with the Aspen modeling software to complete a conceptual process design. Once the modeling was complete, drum quantities of crude degummed oil were sent to Koch Modular’s pilot plant in Houston, Texas to test the process. The first step, as previously mentioned, is solvent extraction.

A general rule of thumb within the chemical processing industry is that pilot testing must be performed to allow for a successful scale-up of a solvent extraction process because the physical properties of the fluids do not allow an engineer to predict the behavior of the two liquids in an extraction system. Small amounts of impurities can affect the throughput and efficiency in an extraction column.

We tested the key process steps at our pilot plant, which allowed us to de-risk the process design. We captured all the necessary data that allowed us to scale up the unit operations for the next step, the demonstration plant.

Q: What types of food will the oil from pongamia beans be used for? 

OR: The end product generates a great mouth feel and smooth-tasting oil that can be used in cooking, salad dressings and to make/replace butter. Additionally, it can replace canola, peanut, soybean and sunflower oil.

Q: What are the advantages of using modular construction for this process?

TS: Right now, the demonstration-scale process system is being built under a roof in a controlled environment in one of our fabrication shops. Building a modular system in a controlled environment enables increased productivity, given that the workforce is not subject to weather-related delays. It also ensures safer construction, given that the system is built in a horizontal orientation, with the top of the structure no more than 12 feet off the ground. Furthermore, the work is taking place outside of the chemical plant’s hazardous environment. 

Other benefits of modular construction for this process are reduced cost and schedule risk. The demonstration-scale and full-facility plants will be shipped to the installation site via roadways. Everything will be delivered on or before schedule.

Q: What do you do with the leftover flavonoids? 

OR: In areas such as India, there is a market for the flavonoids that are generated from this process. They are used for personal care applications, including pharmaceutical skin treatments and topical creams.

TS: Sustainability is critical in all of Koch Modular’s collaborative projects. We aim to develop the process efficiently so that no waste comes from any plant. With Terviva, we refined the process to generate flavonoids used within another market, producing no waste.

Q: What were some hurdles you overcame while developing the technology? 

TS: We learned quite a few things at the pilot plant in Houston that affected the design of the first demonstration-scale plant. One learning lesson was that the degumming process by which Terviva removes the gums from the oil wasn’t fine-tuned enough. This impacted the downstream process that our team was working on.

The Koch Modular team analyzed the poorly degummed oil and found out from the data generated that the extraction steps wouldn’t work. The oil wasn’t degummed to the degree necessary. This enabled Terviva to go back to the degumming process and make changes so that there would be no impact on the downstream process.

Another lesson we learned happened during the testing of the solvent recovery steps. The organic phases contain a solvent that needs to be separated under vacuum conditions. It was discovered that the modeling software did not correctly predict the vapor pressures of some of these compounds and impurities. During the separation step, we found that we had to run at slightly different pressures than we originally predicted to keep the operating temperatures of the evaporation low enough so that it wouldn’t affect the oil quality. This is very important because, without pilot plant testing, these might have been overlooked if Terviva had jumped right into developing a demonstration plant.

Q: Where are you now with the project?  

OR: Right now, we are expecting delivery of the Koch-Terviva equipment to a site in New Orleans, Louisiana. We expect to set up the equipment there, and using criteria from this demonstration-scale plant, Terviva will identify and define the location for a bigger second-generation plant. This will be a combination of insights from the supply chain, pre-manufacturing and post-manufacturing issues.

TS: The purpose of the demonstration-scale plant is to tweak the design even more by improving efficiency and optimizing the process for the generation two plant. Generation two will be at least ten times the capacity of the demonstration-scale plant.

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