© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WOSP-FM in Portsmouth is operating at reduced power. In the meantime, listen online or with the WOSU mobile app.

With fungi, bacteria and yeast, Northeast Ohio company creates greener alternatives to chemicals

Dishes hold the “biological building blocks” that Locus Fermentation Solutions' work is based on.
Ida Lieszkovszky
/
Ideastream Public Media
Dishes hold the “biological building blocks” that Locus Fermentation Solutions' work is based on.

There is growing pressure on companies to become more environmentally friendly, and many say they’re ready. But how? Well, one Northeast Ohio company, Locus Fermentation Solutions, is looking to help companies replace their toxic chemicals with greener biological alternatives.

Headquartered in Solon the ten-year-old company has quickly outgrown its current office space and has started to spread out into several nearby buildings.

Vice President of Production Scott Weber recently showed Ideastream some of the company’s laboratory and production space. Here, scientists take tiny organisms like fungi, bacteria, or yeast and ferment them in a bid to create biological alternatives to chemicals.

The fermentation tanks that Locus Fermentation Solutions uses to produce its biosurfactants.
Ida Lieszkovszky
/
Ideastream Public Media
The fermentation tanks that Locus Fermentation Solutions uses to produce its biosurfactants.

There are several ways to go about fermenting things, but one of them is in giant containers not unlike what you might see at a brewery. These containers can be seen in Locus Fermentation Solutions’ ten-thousand gallon capacity biosurfactant facility, where yeast is fed a steady diet of fatty acids and sugars and swished around until it produces the desired result: a liquid that can replace chemical surfactants.

  Scott Weber holds up a small vial of the biosurfactant they’ve made.
Ida Lieszkovszky
/
Ideastream Public Media
Scott Weber holds up a small vial of the biosurfactant they’ve made.

Surfactants are the stuff found in many household cleaners and other products that makes things “more wettable.” Think of painting your walls, the paint doesn’t just glop on there, it spreads nice and even. That’s thanks to the surfactants in your paint. But chemical surfactants often contain 1,4 dioxane, a toxic forever chemical that’s been banned in some states. Other common surfactants, like those found in chocolate and makeup, come from Palm Oil, which has led to devastation deforestation worldwide.

Locus Fermentation Solutions’ biosurfactant development led to a major exclusive deal with Dow Chemicals.

“A chemical is like a hammer,” Locus CEO Andrew Lefkowitz said. “A biological is like a toolbox, so it has multiple ways of effectuating a solution, and so that’s one of the advantages that biologics have besides from being safer they’re just better. Our technology ends up providing benefits that chemicals just can’t.”

Locus Fermentation Solutions other products include a powder-like substance that farmers can spread on their seeds to make crops grow stronger, taller, and all-around healthier. They have a product that can be sprinkled on cattle feed to reduce methane emissions, kind of like a probiotic for cows. They also make a non-living treatment produced by microorganisms that can be poured down wells that allows for greater yield during fracking and mining operations.

And yes, Lefkowitz insisted that greater yield from mining is a good - and green - thing.

“The world’s not going to stop running on oil, but if you can reduce the carbon footprint of oil going into cars, planes, cruise ships, plastic, then you’ve made a big dent in the greenhouse gases that are produced by that industry,” he said.

Even Earth-friendly electric vehicles rely a great deal on mining, for the lithium in their batteries.

“All these big companies are announcing, we’re going to be carbon neutral by 2030 or 2040 or 2050, they don’t necessarily have a way to get there,” Lefkowtiz told ideastream. “Our mission is to accelerate the achievement of the decarbonization goal of our clients.”

Locus Fermentation Solutions CEO Andrew Lefkowitz
Locus Fermentation Solutions
Locus Fermentation Solutions CEO Andrew Lefkowitz

The general business model is that companies come to Locus Fermentation Solutions and say "we need to replace something bad with something greener, can you help?" Lefkowitz said. The scientist at Locus will then try to come up with a bio-based solution. Lefkowitz said he knows their products don’t just have to be as good as what they’re replacing: they have to be better and cheaper. As he put it, their products must increase revenue, decrease costs “and by the way they’re green.”

“There’s pressure from regulators, there’s pressure from investors, there’s pressure even from employees motivating companies to do the right thing, but at the end of the day, it’s financial pressure,” he said.

The company now boasts more than 1,400 patent filings and has partnered with several universities and research organizations nationwide to vet their products. In April the company announced an influx of funds that pushed its total raised over $250 million, and they are about to start raising additional funds to meet overwhelming demand.

As Lefkowitz put it, “We’re about to get into a position where the demand for our technology is what’s been called frightening.”

Corrected: June 27, 2023 at 11:59 AM EDT
This story originally incorrectly stated that Locus Fermentation Solutions had created a product using microorganisms to assist with fracking. The product uses an ingredient produced by the microoganism.
Tags
Ida Lieszkovszky is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. She covers an array of topics, including politics, education, and the environment. You can find her on Twitter @Ida_in_Cle.