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VIDEO: Biorefinery Turns Starbucks Waste in Sustainable Products in Hong Kong

VIDEO: Biorefinery Turns Starbucks Waste in Sustainable Products in Hong Kong

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Biorefinery National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society30 August 2012

A new ‘biorefinery‘ intended to transform biowaste into key building blocks for the manufacture of renewable plastics, laundry detergents and scores of other everyday products has been successfully tested using waste from Starbucks in Hong Kong.

A report on the project – launched in cooperation with the Starbucks restaurant chain (NASDAQ: SBUX), which was seeking a use for spent coffee grounds and stale bakery goods – was made the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.

“Our new process addresses the food waste problem by turning Starbucks’ trash into treasure – detergent ingredients and bio-plastics that can be incorporated into other useful products,” explained Carol S. K. Lin, Ph.D., who led the research team at the City University of Hong Kong.

The idea took shape during a meeting last summer between representatives of the nonprofit organisation called The Climate Group and Lin at her laboratory at the City University of Hong Kong.

The Climate Group reportedly asked Lin about applying her transformative technology, called a biorefinery, to the wastes of one of its members – Starbucks Hong Kong. To help jump-start the research, Starbucks donated a portion of the proceeds from each purchase of its “Care for Our Planet Cookies” gift set.

A new kind of biorefinery

According to Lin her team already had experience in developing the technology needed to do it – a so-called biorefinery, which can convert plant-based materials into a range of ingredients for biofuels and other products.

“We are developing a new kind of biorefinery, a food biorefinery, and this concept could become very important in the future, as the world strives for greater sustainability,” added Lin.

“Using corn and other food crops for bio-based fuels and other products may not be sustainable in the long-run. Concerns exist that this approach may increase food prices and contribute to food shortages in some areas of the world. Using waste food as the raw material in a biorefinery certainly would be an attractive alternative,” she continued.

Lin went on to describe the food biorefinery process, which involves blending the baked goods with a mixture of fungi that excrete enzymes to break down carbohydrates in the food into simple sugars. The blend then goes into a fermenter where bacteria convert the sugars into succinic acid.

Succinic acid topped a U.S. Department of Energy list of 12 key materials that could be produced from sugars and that could be used to make high-value products ― everything from laundry detergents to plastics to medicines.

Biorefinery Turns Starbucks Waste in Sustainable Products in Hong KongAdded benefits

In addition to providing a sustainable source of succinic acid, the new technology could have numerous environmental benefits, said Lin.

For example, Hong Kong produces nearly 5000 tonnes of used grounds every year. Currently, this waste is incinerated, composted or disposed of in landfills. Lin’s process could potentially convert these piles of foul-smelling waste into useful products.

Additionally, Lin claimed that the carbon dioxide that is produced is reused during the biorefining process, and that because succinic acid and its products (such as bio-plastics) are made using bakery waste as a renewable feedstock, they are sustainable alternatives to products made using petroleum.

The method isn’t just for bakery waste – Lin said she has also successfully transformed food wastes from her university’s cafeteria and other mixed food wastes into useful substances with the technology.

According to Lin the process could become commercially viable on a much larger scale with additional funding from investors.

“In the meantime, our next step is to use funding we have from the Innovation and Technology Commission from the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to scale up the process,” she said. “Other funding has been applied to test this idea in a pilot-scale plant in Germany.”

The scientists acknowledged support from the Innovation and Technology Commission in Hong Kong, as well as a grant from the City University of Hong Kong.

A video of Lin explaining the technology at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society can be seen below:

Video streaming by Ustream

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