Farming News - Alternative protein: powering up energy-efficient, reliable production

Alternative protein: powering up energy-efficient, reliable production

By Lei Gommers, Global Business Development Manager, ABB Drives

Our world's growing population and the threat of climate change have elevated food security concerns. According to the United Nations (UN), we will have a global population of 9.7 billion by 2050, and this poses an unprecedented challenge in ensuring sufficient protein supply — an essential macronutrient for everyone.

However, traditional protein sources, like those used in livestock farming and industrial fishing, contribute to sustainability issues such as deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and water pollution. Relying heavily on these practices is unsustainable, necessitating the incorporation of alternatives, including insect protein.

While a significant shift in human consumption towards insect protein may not be immediate, substituting traditional protein with insect protein in animal feed is a promising development. This initiative reduces environmental impact and preserves resources for human consumption, promoting a more sustainable and balanced global approach to protein production.

The challenge now is to drive awareness and scale-up insect protein production. In this regard, high-efficiency motors, variable speed drives, also known as variable frequency drives or simply, drives and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) deployed throughout the process present a promising solution.

Using insects as an alternative source of protein

Insects offer a compelling solution to many of the problems of traditional protein sources. Insect farming can be carried out on a small scale and in various environments, offering economic opportunities for local communities and helping to provide much needed food security. Insects also happen to be highly nutritious, being rich not only in protein, but also vitamins and minerals.

In fact, insects are gaining attention as a sustainable solution to the global food waste problem as, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, approximately 30% of human food production goes to waste, and insects have a remarkable ability to convert this food waste into valuable protein resources, which are ideal for use in animal and fish feed.

Crickets, mealworms, and black soldier flies are amongst the popular species of insect for farming due to their rapid growth, ease of rearing and rich nutritional value. Other species are also being explored for protein production, including silkworms and grasshoppers.

Understanding high-efficiency motors and drives

Insect protein production deviates notably from conventional agriculture as it primarily occurs in processing plants with integrated farms, or farms with integrated processing plants, rather than on traditional farms.

Production requires specific equipment and optimal environmental conditions for rearing insects. High-efficiency motors, including synchronous reluctance (SynRM) technology, and drives collectively play a crucial role in establishing sustainable and efficient processes for insect protein production.

High-efficiency motors minimize energy wastage, making them ideal for the energy-intensive requirements of insect farming facilities. They convert electrical energy into mechanical motion to drive equipment for ventilation, cooling and pressing with minimal waste, generating less heat and reducing energy consumption.

Drives are indispensable for controlling the operation of the motors inside various machinery and equipment used in insect protein production. They enable energy savings by adjusting motor speed to exactly match equipment requirements, reducing wear and maintenance costs, and enhancing overall production efficiency.

Scaling up insect protein production while minimizing environmental impact

High-efficiency motors, drives and PLCs bring precision control to the delicate art of insect protein production. They offer the means to control environmental factors like temperature and humidity, creating the ideal conditions for insect growth.

Motors and drives, especially when combined with PLCs, can facilitate intelligent automation in feeding and harvesting, for example, by overseeing conveyor belts, pumps and other systems responsible for the insects’ nourishment and timely harvesting. This automation is gentle and efficient, preventing harm to the insects. The ability to adjust speed and timing ensures optimal outcomes.

Preparing insect feed

Specifically, high-efficiency motors and drives are indispensable for regulating the positive displacement pumps and conveyer belts which transport insect feed to the rearing area, ensuring accurate and uniform feed distribution. This precise control promotes efficient insect growth and minimizes feed waste. The precision control of conveyor belt speed also proves vital in automated harvesting systems, where mechanical sorting mechanisms separate mature insects from the rearing substrate.

In the preparation of insect feed, agitators and mixers are employed to blend various ingredients and ensure a consistent mixture. Energy-efficient motors and drives in this context enable precise mixing and blending of different feed components. Drives offer the flexibility to adjust based on specific feed recipes, guaranteeing uniform nutrition for the insects. This automation minimizes manual effort, enhancing the quality and consistency of the feed.

Controlling heating, ventilation and environmental conditions

One of the most energy-intensive processes in insect farming involves precisely heating and ventilating controlled environments. Motors and drives significantly contribute to sustainability by operating at the intensity required by the task, rather than full throttle regardless, thus reducing operational costs by optimizing energy consumption.

Ventilation systems are particularly crucial in insect protein production farms, ensuring optimal conditions for rearing in terms of temperature, humidity and air quality. These systems control fans and dampers and can make precise adjustments based on environmental conditions, thereby maintaining energy efficiency.

Energy-efficient motors and drives are also indispensable in controlling heaters, chillers, and heat exchangers within insect farms, particularly in regions with extreme climate variations. Their variable speed control ensures these systems operate at peak efficiency.

Crucially, drives must also be durable – including being equipped with a C4 PCB coating – to withstand the high levels of ammonia found in these production environments, extending their lifespan from just a few years to more than a decade.

Many farming and agricultural facilities also choose to use specialized motors which meet the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) standards for washdown environments. These motors are specifically engineered to withstand and perform reliably in settings where they may be exposed to excess heat, moisture, chemicals, and other potentially damaging substances.

Towards a greener and more sustainable future

The benefits of utilizing high-efficiency motors in insect protein production are substantial. They significantly reduce energy consumption, leading to lower operational costs and a more sustainable production process. The efficient utilization of energy translates to a smaller environmental footprint, aligning with the sustainability goals of insect protein farming.

Government subsidies and grants are accessible to incentivize insect farming within the agricultural sector while, in January 2023, the European Commission approved the sale of insects for human consumption in powder and other dried forms. This support, coupled with the potential for cost savings and sustainability benefits, alongside the ready availability of specialized motor and drive technologies, is sparking significant interest in insect protein production.

As production expands, we must seize the opportunity to embrace new, energy-efficient production processes for a greener and more sustainable future.

Discover more about the game-changing qualities of high-efficiency motors and variable speed drives: