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All about plant proteins - Interview with Sales Engineer Mathias Aschenbrenner

Vegetable proteins – are they just a short-term trend or rather a development with lasting effects? Which role do Flottweg decanter centrifuges play in the recovery of vegetable proteins? Mathias Aschenbrenner, who works as a sales engineer for Flottweg, answers the most important questions on the recovery of proteins from vegetable raw material.


The plant protein market is currently booming. Is this short-term hype or long-term development?

Unquestionably, a long-term development. Due to global population growth and limited available resources, the importance of plant-based protein will continue to rise. Also, the adoption of a predominantly plant-based diet is gaining in popularity.  People who eat meat also turn to plant-based alternatives, as long as they like the taste and consider it healthy and affordable. Product development for plant-based proteins has shown enormous progress. These are the best possible conditions for long-term positive market development.


Which plants can be used as a raw material for protein production?

We categorize them into two major groups of protein suppliers: Starch plants and oil plants. Starch plants include pea, faba bean, mung bean, lentil, etc. Oil plants include soybean, lupine, rapeseed, sunflower, linseed and many more. Due to the high demand of the food industry, new sources of protein are constantly being added. In principle, protein can be extracted from almost any plant, but profitability is key.


Which raw materials are currently in high demand and what trends are emerging?

Currently, peas and soy are perennial bestsellers, and we are also seeing an increased demand for alternative protein sources.  There is also a trend towards regionality. This means that native or local species are more in demand. For example, the native plants found in Europe (faba beans, lupine and sunflower) are more popular in that region. In addition to their economic benefits, these indigenous plants make an important contribution to the biodiversity of our cultivated landscape.


How is plant protein produced?

The process comprises of two steps: extraction and coagulation. In the first step, the protein is extracted from the plant material. Flour or flakes are mashed at a high pH value for approximately 1 hour and then passed through a decanter that separates the dissolved protein from the other solids.  During the next step, coagulation, the dissolved protein is made insoluble by lowering the pH value. The protein precipitates and can be separated with the help of a Sedicanter®.


Does Flottweg offer machines or entire processes for plant protein extraction?

Both. We have customers who develop their own processes and order the applicable machines from Flottweg. Other customers specify raw material and product specifications and Flottweg develops a customized process.


Does Flottweg offer turnkey systems for plant-based protein production?

We can offer a complete process from flour to moist protein. The protein can then be further processed as a moist product directly as food or fed into a dryer. We have strong partnerships with international resources in the drying and milling industries.


Which by-products are produced and what can be done with them?

The by-products can be further processed, specific to the customer, to create additional value. For example, starch plants such as peas and beans can produce high-quality starch and fiber fractions, both of which are in high demand in the food and feed industries.


What level of protein content can be achieved with the FW process?

We can achieve protein levels greater than 90% with our process. This is referred to as protein isolate. Lower protein concentrations are usually referred to as concentrate. The quality of the raw material is crucial to the purity of the protein. We always ask our new customers for raw material samples. In our state-of-the-art laboratory, we can evaluate the sample quality and provide the customer with preliminary feedback.


What protein quality can be achieved with the Flottweg process?

Our process design ensures that the protein is processed as gently as possible. Our years of experience allows us to understand the exact demands of the different raw materials. The result is excellent native protein quality with maximum water solubility. It is important to maintain this quality as much as possible in the subsequent steps, such as drying. Through a downstream thermal/mechanical treatment, other functional properties (e.g., gel formation/water retention) can be adjusted as required for plant-based protein.


What capacities can Flottweg offer?

Depending on customer requirements, we can offer everything from a manually controlled pilot installation with a flour capacity of 100 kg/h (220.4 lb/h), to a highly automated protein line with a flour capacity of up to 10 t/h. Due to the modular design of our protein lines, this capacity can then be scaled up as needed.


What distinguishes Flottweg from other providers?

In the plant protein field in particular, Flottweg offers a unique combination of technology and expertise. With our unique Sedicanter, we are ideally equipped for substances that are difficult to separate. In addition, our FW machines have unique features such as an automatically adjustable impeller and the Simp Drive® gearbox, which enable maximum flexibility and efficiency. However, our developments are not limited to mechanical components. With our award-winning HMI design, we were able to take user-friendliness to a new level. By optimizing our protein process, we have been able to significantly reduce water consumption and at the same time reduce the amount of waste water. Our machines and automation come from our factory in Vilsbiburg, of which we are particularly proud.  Competitors frequently outsource their automation, which can often result in delays due to the high level of complexity.  At Flottweg, automation is integrated from the start. With our years of international experience and specialized expertise, we achieve the highest levels of customer satisfaction by offering tailored solutions to our customers around the world.


Who are the typical Flottweg customers?

Our customers in the plant protein sector include the usual suspects. First and foremost, there are the relevant corporations. But it is also becoming apparent that more and more medium-sized companies are interested in the manufacture of plant protein. In addition, there are research-related institutes and start-ups. We offer individual solutions for all these customers.


How does a customer project with Flottweg typically unfold?

We always take a systematic approach. First, a questionnaire guides our input process to make sure all necessary information is received. We share the best potential solutions for them, and provide the information they need to support their solution decision. Once a solution is determined, the next step is to characterize the raw materials in the laboratory. Based on these results, we can already roughly estimate which product qualities can later be achieved. The next step is usually the verification of the results using decanters in the Flottweg Process Center.  After a successful trial in the Process Center, many customers opt for pre-engineering. The results include individual mass balances and corresponding plant concepts that allow the customer to make a complete economic evaluation of the upcoming investment. This step is then followed by an order for the system.


Do you have questions about the industrial protein production?

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