Plant Protein Extractor – an Open Source High Impact Solution

“The Plant Protein Extractor device when fully developed will make it possible to produce edible food from leaves, which humans can not consume directly. My hope is that with this device we will not only be able to make humanity more resilient in the face of food supply catastrophes, but also provide a means to make low-cost nutritional food to help mitigate the current challenges of hunger and malnutrition,” says Joshua Pearce  in our joint interview with Tiberius Brastaviceanu.

Joshua Pearce is the Richard Witte Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a Professor cross-appointed in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University where he runs the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group

Tiberius Brastaviceanu is the core coordinator of the Sensorica Open Value Network, where he currently engages in project planning, development strategy, crowdsourcing and funding initiatives for the Plant Protein Extractor project.

Sebastian Klemm: “The magnitude and severity of food crises worsened in 2020 as protracted conflict, the economic fallout of COVID-19 and weather extremes exacerbated pre-existing fragilities,” as theGlobal Report on Food Crises 2021by the Food Security Information Network proves.

Why is the Plant Protein Extractor an effective solution to counter food shortages & malnutrition?

Joshua Pearce: The Plant Protein Extractor device when fully developed will make it possible to produce edible food from leaves, which humans can not consume directly. My research focus on the device was initially for much more extreme disasters like those that would severely restrict or eliminate all conventional agriculture like we covered in the book Feeding Everyone No Matter What.

Currently, even when supply chains are disrupted people in North America have an option (on average) to fulfill their protein needs by making more efficient use of their backyards to grow soybeans or raise chickens (and eggs) or rabbits. Everyone is not so fortunate globally. There is an embarrassing number of people that suffer and die from hunger and associated diseases today.

My hope is that with this device we will not only be able to make humanity more resilient in the face of food supply catastrophes, but also provide a means to make low-cost nutritional food to help mitigate the current challenges of hunger and malnutrition. 

Tiberius Brastaviceanu: For the past decade I have been heavily involved in developing new innovation and production methods that are designed to produce technology for the greater good.

Technology is never neutral. Anything we use in our daily life bears the signature of the economic context or the business model that has produced it. A commercial printer is designed to make you dependent on ink cartridges that the same company sells, which constitutes its main source of income. An Open Source printer is designed around its main function and allows you to recycle ink cartridges.

Open Source technology for the greater good is much better suited for boosting resiliency in our communities. These are empowering technologies, much better for appropriation, reducing dependency on single points of failure such as manufacturers or other critical supply chain components.

Food is a necessity and the 2008 financial crisis showed us that we cannot treat food like any other commodity on the open market. The “Plant Protein Extractor” is an effective solution to counter food shortages because it is designed through a process that generates incentives for building tech for the greater good, not for alternate motives.

Sebastian Klemm: Other than a canned product device, you are working on and aim to disseminate a solution: Can you elaborate on the difference that this makes?

Joshua Pearce: The Plant Protein Extractor will be fully Open Source hardware and we are attempting to design it to be digitally manufactured to the largest extent possible. What this means is that anyone anywhere in the world will be free to make the device for themselves, their communities, or their own businesses. My previous work has shown that there is substantial financial savings using a distributed means of production from high-tech scientific equipment to low-tech tools for your garden or farm. The license will by fully Open Source – that also means that people that make it and improve it will be required to re-share their improvements with the community so we can all benefit.

Tiberius Brastaviceanu: We are very fortunate to work with Joshua Pearce on this project. He is truly an inspiration in the Open Source hardware community.

Disseminating a solution requires good designs backed by science as well as deep connections to potential users on the ground. Our approach is participatory, bridging academia with Open Source communities, NGOs and users on the ground, providing trust and validation of the design. Moreover, wide dissemination requires good incentives for adopting the technology.

We are taking into consideration economic models that can justify the acquisition or the fabrication of the device, and that can sustain its use and maintenance. For instance, David Kennedy from Leaf for Life, an organization that has developed plant protein extraction devices in collaboration with communities in Latin America, told us that women have championed the practice using a village-scale coop model.

We translate this information into design requirements, to make a device that is well adapted to a women-lead operation. This puts constraints on safety features, on the weight of mechanical parts that are often manipulated, and on the technical skills required to assemble and to maintain the device. If the “Plant Protein Extractor” is a community shared device, the design should also take into consideration the diverse profile of potential users, as well as food security.

Last, but not the least, once a solution is provided we need to put in place ecosystem services, to allow people to find it (eg. by offering a trusted repository of designs and manuals), to learn how to use it (eg. through peer learning), and to get help when needed (eg. through a forum or other types of communications and messaging tools). 

Sebastian Klemm: What immediate expertise are you looking for to support your cause at this point?

Tiberius Brastaviceanu: This is more than just an Open Hardware project, we treat it as an Open Enterprise. Hardware design and prototyping is one important activity, and we need talented mechanical and electrical engineers. But in order to find this passionate technical talent we need to spread the word, to work on communication strategy, to develop communications materials and to engage in outreach activities.

We need people with communications skills, animators, facilitators and project coordinators, and even help on the budgeting and finance side. Sensorica takes Open Source development to another level, adding an economic layer on top of it.

We are looking for people to essentially cover all the activities of a startup, with a twist, meaning that the required skills must be adapted to an open and highly collaborative work environment.

Sebastian Klemm: Both the current phase of seed funding and initial prototyping of the project in the  collaborative working process in the Sensorica Open Value Network is funded.

What types of institutional collaborations are you seeking for the rollout of the solution to communities in need of food supply?

Joshua Pearce: The project can use additional support to make refined prototypes and begin testing as well as scaling up and manufacturing. We are always looking for collaborators at every stage of an Open Source appropriate technologies development.

In addition, I  can utilize industrial support even if it is “in kind” to leverage government funding. So we would be particularly interested in partners wishing to commercialize the device for their regions and countries.

In addition, we are developing an Open Source method to determine toxicity of unknown leaf types. For this work we can use help from those hobbyists, citizen scientists or professionals who are willing to make leaf concentrate using our device or tools they have on hand to help us with testing.

Tiberius Brastaviceanu: We have already built a good collaboration base, covering academic labs, NGOs, industrial equipment manufacturers, funding agencies, innovation intermediary organizations and sustainable food advocates, Open Source communities, as well as a group of freelancers that form Sensorica’s pool of contributors to the project.

This ecosystem will continue to grow, due to the transparent (free access to information) and open (permissionless access to participation) nature of the project. All these participants play key roles in technical development and dissemination.

Sebastian Klemm: What are the benefits of this project: Who can have an impact and why?

Joshua Pearce: It is possible to make leaf concentrate with a blender but is extremely labor intensive. This project will make a low-cost digitally manufacturable device that will help produce food from killed leaves and agricultural residue at scale. Having these Open Source plans shared will make humanity more resilient during major food disruptions. My previous work along with the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED)  has found more than 10 alternative foods that could feed humanity even with no agriculture. They take time to ramp up, however, and food from leaves is our best option in the critical 6 months (after stored food runs out) to 1 year (when alternative foods have ramped up). 

Perhaps even more importantly for those that are food insecure today – the device could provide a low-cost method to generate edible food from plant matter not normally edible for humans.

Tiberius Brastaviceanu: I second Joshua in saying that the end users of this device will be the ultimate beneficiaries. As mentioned earlier, we treat this project as an open enterprise with multiple stakeholders. One of the most important responsibilities of core contributors is to nurture the ecosystem built around our shared objectives. The project is designed to generate benefits for all the stakeholders mentioned previously. There is something in it for everyone. 

  • Academic labs can apply new knowledge to a high impact project and can provide students with the opportunity to perform in an international and highly collaborative setting.
  • Food processing equipment manufacturers can gain exposure, test new market segments, experience novel innovation methods, discover new talent, and perhaps become suppliers of some components. As Zak Weston from The Good Food Institute put it, our bottom up approach contributes to opening and growing of the plant-based protein market and is complementary to the efforts of the private sector in gaining market share from animal-based protein. Sustainable food is a common ground on which we can build. 
  • Innovation intermediary organizations are themselves in need of novel innovation methods that go beyond private-public partnerships and bridge with the crowd, with Open Source communities and the civil society. Through their participation they will also be exposed to commons-based peer production and other variants of P2P economic models. Their usual role is to provide ecosystem services between industry, academia and government. We add the crowd as a pillar of innovation. Who can deny today the disruptive achievements of Open Source communities, from 3D printing to the blockchain. This is a great opportunity for them to experience public-private-crowd partnerships.
  • NGOs gain exposure and new tools to help their mission. They also develop new relations and increase their potential to attract funding. 
  • Freelancers find purpose, a learning experience, sense of belonging, money.

Our greatest challenge is to communicate these value propositions to every type of participant and stakeholder. Sensorica has been perfecting its Open Value model for the past 10 years. There is no doubt about its merits, but it is still relatively new and largely unknown by traditional institutions. We have to look at this with an entrepreneurial spirit.

An open setting is very rich in benefits and most of the time has unintended fortunate consequences. Every stakeholder can extend the aforementioned benefits. The limitations are only bound by our imagination.

Further project information:

Sensorica Website

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