A Canadian Scientist Turns Wood Chips, Coffee Grounds and Manure into Edible Food

updated 12/14/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/14/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

When it comes to the ultimate junk food, french fries, taco chips and cupcakes have nothing on the culinary creation of Dr. Murray Moo-Young. The professor of biochemical engineering at Waterloo University in Ontario has invented food that's made entirely from, well, junk.

For the past eight years Moo-Young, 48, and his colleagues have been working on a process whereby fungi convert garbage into an edible substance that is 30 to 50 percent protein. The fungi, which are called Chaetomium cellulolyticum, feed on things like straw, cow manure, wood chips, coffee grounds and the sludge left over from paper manufacturing. Moo-Young liquefies such a mixture in, say, a 100-ton vat, seeds it with billions of the fungi and adds his own chemical formula (he will not divulge the ingredients). In four hours the gunk has been converted into 75 tons of food. The fungi actually ingest the mixture, tripling in size before they die. Moo-Young dries the dead microbes, which have the consistency of wet paste, and breaks them off into chips with the texture of bran flakes. They can also be granulated or powdered.

Moo-Young samples his product "when visitors are here," he says, "to show that I'm not afraid to eat it." He describes the flavor as "somewhat malty, but not undesirable, a little like a yeast sandwich." The flakes have an unpleasant aroma, but masking it "would be no problem," according to Moo-Young.

The professor envisions several potential uses for his product. It could supplement or even replace soy and fish meal as an animal feed, and it could, with proper flavoring, be used in Third World countries now suffering from protein deficiencies. It might even find a place in the affluent nations as an unusual snack. "If we could develop a Madison Avenue approach," theorizes Moo-Young, "maybe we could market this food in Canada or the United States. Maybe we should liken it to an expensive, exotic food such as lobster and crayfish, which also eat a lot of garbage."

Born in Kingston, Jamaica to a Chinese mother and a Russian-Chinese father in the import-export business, Moo-Young was the last of seven children. After earning his doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of London, he began his research career at Waterloo in 1966. He has written some 80 scientific papers, edited five textbooks and served as a consultant to such corporate giants as IBM and ITT. "We don't become real engineers," he says, "unless we're consulting."

More than 500 companies in 30 countries have requested information on Moo-Young's invention, and last month he signed a licensing agreement with a French conglomerate which intends to build 14 processing plants throughout Europe. A Canadian paper mill will begin an experiment using the technology next spring. Moo-Young will receive approximately 50 percent of the profits from any sale of the process—and he could become a millionaire as a result. "I like the academic world too much to leave it," he says. "But it would be nice not to have to worry where my next microbial meal is coming from."

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