Meet Jiancheng Qi, master of precision fermentation


SDG 2: Zero Hunger

Indicator 2.5.1 - Does your university as a body provide access on food security and sustainable agriculture knowledge/skills/technology to local farmers and food producers?

Meet Jiancheng Qi and the Agri-Food Discovery Place


Jiancheng Qi has helped dozens of food and bioprocessing businesses become more environmentally friendly using the power of fermentation. But Qi and his colleagues at the Agri-Food Discovery Place aren’t making beer or yogurt. The pilot-plant facility he oversees uses both naturally occurring and genetically modified microorganisms such as certain fungi and bacteria to make proteins for food, biopolymers for biodegradable plastics and biofertilizers for crop production. They do this using a process called precision fermentation. 

Fermentation is one of five major platforms at the Agri-Food Discovery Place, a pilot-plant facility for testing and scaling up ideas that originate at the university and in industry and which aims to help researchers, food producers and farmers expand Alberta’s sustainability impact. 

We talked to Qi about his work at the facility. 

What is exciting about precision fermentation? 

Precision fermentation is a term initially used by food industry people to describe the precisely controlled, pure culture microbial fermentation process to create food ingredients such as proteins that are normally found in meat, dairy and eggs, and to differentiate that from traditional food fermentation processes such as brewing, cheese making, yogurt, Kimchi or fermented meat production.  

Modern industrial microbiological fermentation has been around for decades making products or ingredients in numerous sectors: pharmeceuticals, food and beverage, cosmetics, vitamins and enzymes to name a few. 

Today the reason people, especially people in the food sector, are interested in precision fermentation is because through this technology they can create a vast array of new products, especially the biologically identical animal proteins for animal-free meat, dairy and egg products. And they can be made fairly sustainably.  A successful example of this includes omega 3 fatty acid – initially it was derived from fish oil but now we can use fermentation technology to create it.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently doing some work for a Calgary-based startup company to scale up the fermentation process. They want to grow a type of filamentous fungi to produce protein that has increased nutritional value and functional properties for human food products. The company has developed a basic concept at the bench scale, but for the bioprocessing scale-up they must come to a facility that has a larger bioreactor. We have 140 L and 1500 L fermenters they can use to demonstrate the fermentation technology at larger scale to produce the desired product with acceptable quality and yield, and fully understand and control operational risks at large-scale production. 

How does this work help us with food security and sustainability?

Almost every microbial fermentation project can be related to sustainability in my opinion because we don’t take lots of land. You can have a small footprint and create large amounts of useful products within a short time frame, whether those are food ingredients or industrial components. 

What is your favourite part of the job?

The pilot-scale studies we do at the Agri-Food Discovery Place are an integral part of new product commercialization for startups and an essential tool for established companies hoping to resolve technical challenges, improve efficiency and reduce production costs. 

We feel rewarded because what we do here helps academic researchers with the proof-of-concept stage of their research projects, helps startup companies in product and process development so that they can become successful with commercialization and helps established companies solve technical problems.