‘Probiotics’ — microorganisms that confer a benefit on the host — are common to many kinds of food such as milk and yoghurt.
For some years now, a Chennai-based company, ProKlean Technologies, has been successfully using probiotics for industrial applications. The company uses a ‘community of bacteria’, as opposed to a single species, which has some benefits.
Now it is becoming clear that industrial use of probiotics has another benefit — reducing carbon footprint.
Typically, jobs such as de-waxing grey fabric to ensure they absorb dyes better, stain removal, treatment of textile effluents, odour elimination, and bleaching of paper involve the use of chemicals.
“A third-party, cradle-to-grave carbon footprint evaluation of our typical product, compared with the chemical equivalent that we replace, shows a 75 per cent reduction in carbon footprint,” says Dr Sivaram Pillai, the co-founder and Director (R&D) of the 11-year-old ProKlean Technologies.
ProKlean’s use of a consortium of microbial species, rather than a single species as in other fermentation systems, turned out to be a great innovation because, in a community, bacteria tend to help each other. Basically, the metabolite produced by one species becomes a nutrient for another species.
“It is a dynamic and constantly evolving milieu,” says Pillai.
About 90 per cent of the species in the consortium used by ProKlean belongs to the genus Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. The fermentation is carried out in non-aseptic conditions as against the aseptic conditions used in typical fermentation systems.
Further, the fermentation is carried out in ambient conditions (in a hot city like Chennai) while typical fermentation systems require maintaining a constant temperature. This saves energy. “Since the majority of the species in the culture we were using were Lactobacillus, similar to those in milk, we reasoned that we could also try our fermentation at room temperature. We developed simple methods and procedures over a couple of years to keep out contamination and perfected the protocols we use today,” says Pillai
ProKlean’s plant uses Sintex tanks for the fermentation process, as opposed to the stainless-steel tanks needed in typical fermentation systems. Downstream concentration and purification steps have been eliminated as the entire broth at the end of the fermentation becomes the final product, leading to a considerable reduction in capital cost. More importantly, there is hardly any effluent discharge.
As such, the ProKlean process is a low-cost, low-energy (and hence low carbon footprint), and zero-pollution one.
Some estimates suggest that less than 5 per cent of all microbes are harmful to humans. Of the rest, probably less than 5 per cent are considered beneficial and the rest neutral. Scientists have found that many different species of microbes live together in nature (including human bodies) and communicate using signal chemical molecules. They support each other by sharing nutrients required for growth and survival. When harmful or pathogenic bacteria outnumber the good ones in any milieu, the situation turns ugly; and when good bacteria outnumber the bad ones, the situation turns pleasant. Therefore, by manipulating the good bacteria to do useful work, one can employ many ‘neutral’ bacteria too.
Pillai says that after a dip in business during the pandemic, sales are picking up again and have tripled over the last two years to reach around ₹50 crore last year — this is expected to double again in 2023-24. So far, the company has raised $6 million from The Chennai Angels, Infuse Ventures and Siana Capital and expects to raise another $3.6 million soon.
Currently the bulk of its customers are in the textile and paper industries, but the company is to soon get into wastewater treatment (using bacteria).