A new source of sustainable energy could soon be powering airplanes, cargo ships, and even home heaters – and it’s made of maggots.
More specifically, the oil extracted from the larvae of Black Soldier Flies (BSF) that’s been genetically modified by an Israeli startup.
BugEra is developing a breakthrough technology to breed the larvae so they have twice the amount of oil in their bodies.
The company supplies the eggs or larvae to BSF farms, which grow them, dry them, squeeze out the golden oil, and send them to be refined into biofuel, a kind of renewable energy that supplements fossil fuels like oil and gas.
Most biofuels are derived from crops like soybean, wheat, and corn, which require big plots of land and large quantities of pesticides.
BSF larvae, on the other hand, can be grown in trays of organic waste, like kitchen scraps and animal manure, in around two weeks.
The problem is that BSF farms can’t produce enough of it on an industrial scale. So BugEra basically grows its larvae to be twice as fat as regular larvae – up from 30 percent to 60 percent oil content.
“We’re trying to solve three problems at once with the magnificent black soldier fly,” says Yoav Etgar, CEO of the startup.
“First is upcycling organic waste, which is hazardous to the environment (it produces methane as it decomposes, a potent greenhouse gas). Second, we are solving the problem of huge demand for biofuel, which is constrained by the availability of sustainable crops.
“The third problem is that the black soldier fly is not commercialized [for biofuel] today because of the low volume of oil in the larvae. And that’s where our technology comes into place.”
Etgar says that no other company has genetically engineered the fly subspecies in this manner. BugEra will supply its larvae to BSF farms by the end of the year, which will extract the oil and send them to be refined into biofuel.
Dr. Anna Melkov, CTO, says: “The fatty acid composition is unique among these insects. They have very high values of lauric acid, which is perfectly suited for biofuel production.”
High amounts of lauric acid enhances the properties of biofuel produced from it, like the lowest temperature the fuel can flow without starting to form crystals that can clog the engine.
Realistically, BSF cannot address the entire biofuel market, which is equivalent to nearly two million barrels of crude oil per day – around six percent of the world’s energy use.
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Instead, BugEra will supplement the growing market so fewer fields of crops will need to be planted.
“So you save a lot of area, you save a lot of water, you save the usage of pesticides, you save the usage of chemical fertilizers, you save trees from being cut down,” says Etgar. “And it’s more beneficial to use crops oil like soy for human and animal nutrition and not for producing biofuels.”
Beyond that, using BSF for biofuel can help address our growing mountain of waste – because the flies feed on pretty much anything, including hazardous organic material.
“This insect is particularly suited to recycle the nutrients from the waste streams of humanity,” says Melkov. “They can grow on animal manure, kitchen scraps, and agricultural waste.”
Once the startup finishes developing its prototype strain, it will sell and license the eggs and larvae to different BSF farms, which will grow, breed, and rear the genetically modified flies, one generation at a time. Every few months, BugEra will supplement the colonies with pure strains from its laboratory.
It believes that with its technology, it can enhance additional traits of the fly and develop different strains to be used in other industries. In the future, it may even give the flies new traits – like the ability to function as a biopesticide and fight against specific fungi and bacteria.
“These companies are looking to diversify their offering,” says Etgar. “BSF farmers are producing protein, and they’re all trying to sell it to animal feed manufacturers or to aquaculture feed manufacturers, and they need an edge.
“We believe that the BSF industry needs and should expand to a new and a huge market, like biofuel, which has a massive demand. With our offering we double the oil for a lower cost of operation, which could be a very profitable business for those farms.”
BugEra isn’t the first to harness the qualities of BSF. The larvae are already used as feed for livestock, poultry, and seafood, supplementing their diets with more protein and fats.
Companies have even started to sell BSF oil as skin-care products, claiming it can rejuvenate and lead to more youthful-looking skin.
And last year, researchers found that the oil may alleviate symptoms of colitis, a chronic digestive disease.
BugEra is based in Be’er Sheva, and originated in the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in 2020.
It is also part of the Israeli Innovation Authority Israeli BSF consortium, a group of academia and private companies researching together ways to optimize the flies’ diet, the manufacturing process of protein and oil, genetics, the behavior of the colony, and ensure there is no colony collapse.