Students Develop System That Turns Waste Into Valuable Chemicals
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
One team is trying to create a way to turn waste paper into valuable chemicals, including one that is used in the anti-flu drug Tamiflu.
Interdisciplinary students from the University of Alberta came up with an idea for a startup biotech company called Upcycled Aromatics. Crystal Theodore, a chemical engineering student at the University who is part of the team, said finding a project that has a solution for the waste issues, but also can be useful for other industries is an exciting advancement.
“As we continue to grow as a population around the world, it becomes more and more difficult to find solutions for our personal waste,” said Theodore in a statement.
Her team won the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) competition at MIT last fall for their business plan, which projects $4.5 million in annual revenues from turning waste paper from the Edmonton Waste Management Center into shikimic acid.
“The waste that we’re using is paper fibres that can no longer be recycled,” said Theodore. “The recycling facilities would generally just send it to landfill or into a wastewater stream, but we take that pulp and produce valuable chemicals used in industries including pharmaceuticals, fragrances, flavours and plastics.”
Their process uses genetically modified bacteria called Pseudomonas putida, which feeds on the cellulose in the pulp and converts it into glucose and then into different chemicals, depending on the chemically engineered pathway. Theodore said the team could divert from landfill as much as 50 tons of waste per day through a processing plant the size of a standard industrial-sized cargo container.
“We developed our engineering applications and our biology applications hand in hand,” said Theodore. “A lot of times in biology you have things developed at the lab scale but you don’t look at how it will be implemented at the industrial scale. Engineers can look at a process and optimize it for certain conditions, and in this team we had engineering students asking the biology students questions; then both aspects are developed together.”
The team hopes to diversify their feedstock by looking into other forms of waste in the pulp and paper that could hold even more chemical potential.
“It shows that as a chemical engineering student, you don’t have to be focused only on oil and gas or fertilizer companies,” said Theodore. “You can work in a lot of different industries and make a real difference in the world.”
Chemical engineering professor Dominic Sauvageau, who supervised the team during their competition at MIT last fall, said the nature of the emerging synthetic biology means scientists need to be looking for new ways of doing things.
“We need to educate engineers on the bioscience side of it, and we need to educate scientists on the engineering side and find common ground,” he said. “We have to work together more and more—as this field is developing, it’s important to have people from different disciplines share this common ground.”