Waste high

Shampoo made with the help of potato and pasta, and foodstuffs from orange peel are the stuff of a York laboratory turning waste into cash

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The building doesn’t look like it’s full of mad scientists, just lots of friendly people at computers. Neither is it some castle straight out of a Hammer Horror movie but a modern building on a Yorkshire business park.

What they’re doing there, however, is something that once would have been considered wacky. A clue is offered by the odour from a machine gently thrumming away in the lab. The foul smell is like – well, perhaps it’s better if the smell isn’t described in detail. After all, the stuff they are discovering here might end up in your personal grooming products or medicine cabinet.

“We’re converting waste into useful chemicals,” says Fabien Deswarte, who travelled from France to study for his PhD in chemistry at York University and now helps to run one of its green technology businesses, the Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC).

“I say waste,” he reflects. “But I think that’s the wrong word. We need to find another term because it’s no longer valid. What one person has no use for can be an essential raw material for others, so it really isn’t ‘waste’ at all.”

A lot of the work done by the BDC is confidential and he can’t talk about it, Deswarte warns. Neither can he name some of the major companies that have become clients. But he agrees to speak about some innovative products now edging out of his lab towards the market.

One example is an antibiotic that uses as its feedstock waste fruit and vegetables from the food processing industry. This is done by fermenting the sugars, leaving micro-organisms – bugs, essentially – to turn them into the drug’s active material in much the same process that produces beer.

This novel approach to waste has caught the interest of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, which had been looking for a more reliably-priced source of raw material for its antibiotics than the wheat grain it currently imports from farmers on the Continent.

The work has moved out of the laboratory and been promoted to what the BDC calls “pilot scale”, which is essentially an enlarged version of the laboratory rig. Once the prototype shows the material can be produced in higher quantities the next stage is to make it on a commercial scale.

A number of companies are waking up to other potential uses in waste products, Deswarte says. “They’re telling us, wow! We could do so many clever things with this. There are some really valuable applications for the chemicals that are present in waste.”

One such company is Yorkshire-based Croda, which began in the 1920s by making lanolin soap and creams from the naturally occurring grease in sheep’s fleeces used by woollen mills in Bradford. It has moved on to seek other biorenewable ingredients and supply them for personal care products made by companies like L’Oréal and Unilever.

The BDC has just started looking for new ways to produce a novel ingredient for Croda that will go into anti-dandruff shampoo. Dandruff is a fungal infection, and the micro-organisms that can fight it could potentially be produced on a commercial scale using waste pasta and potatoes.

This feedstock happens to be available in industrial quantities from food processing factories but was once thrown away. Oven chip producers dump tons of potato peelings, for example, while pasta makers dispose of batches that don’t conform to their specifications.

“These are carbohydrate-rich sidestreams from the food industry that aren’t fit for human consumption,” says Deswarte. “However, when turned into sugars they are a very good source of nutrients to make high-value products, and it’s one of the BDC’s main focuses.

Cosmetics are a good application for some of the biorenewables work. At another of York University’s research centres scientists managed to demonstrate that the wax on the surface of straw can be an ingredient of lipstick. Carbon dioxide was used as a solvent to extract the wax from the surface, in much the same way it’s used to decaffeinate coffee.

Another idea is the quest for making a porous material out of wood or food waste that can be used to store energy in batteries

One more fascinating area of investigation is concerned with finding a substitute for traditional oil lubricants. A new type of oilseed rape has been grown and the oil extracted, not for use in cooking but as a biodegradable lubricant for engines and power tools. One of the BDC’s industrial partners has harvested the rapeseed and the BDC pressed it to produce oil that is now being tested in the forestry and marine sectors, where long-term use and spillages could have serious pollution consequences and a safe replacement for traditional oils is desirable.

Another idea currently being researched in the BDC lab is the quest for making a porous material out of wood or food waste that can be used to store energy in batteries, including those in mobile phones. The four-year project has just begun, and Deswarte describes it as “very exciting”.

“Actually, as far as the expression ‘food waste’ is concerned I think it conveys the wrong message, and may well put people off using anything made from it. Perhaps the correct term should be ‘food byproduct.’”

The estimated 15 million tonnes of food wasted in the UK every year has become a scandal. A lot of it – stuff like the mountains of potato peel, egg shells, tomato leaves and even onion skins left over from industrial processing – could be put to other uses, the BDC believes. And while many programmes now ensure that what can’t be eaten is sold or redistributed, few people are aware of the innovative work going on across the country to make use of unavoidable food waste.

Deswarte mentions orange peel as one potential feedstock. In Brazil, he says, after extracting the juice an estimated eight million tonnes of peel are discarded every year, despite the wide range of useful compounds the peel contains.

“We started asking, surely there’s something better we can do with this stuff. If we can turn what people consider waste into a useful resource, that’s a fantastic opportunity.”

Don’t all these great ideas provide York University, which owns the BDC, with patents worth millions of pounds?

Deswarte laughs. Academia has been over-optimistic about what can be earned from its intellectual property, he believes. Someone he knows who worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, which is world famous for its research, told him they earned more money from selling t-shirts than from inventions.

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