University of Alberta students turn waste paper into valuable chemicals
On the Make: Pulp Non-fiction
A team of students from the University of Alberta won the entrepreneurship trophy at MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine competition in November. Their idea? Turn waste paper – that is, the stuff that has been recycled too many times to even be recyclable – into valuable chemicals.
“We took bacteria [called] Pseudomonas putida and genetically inserted a shikimate pathway that would get it to make certain chemicals,” says David Brown, one of the students involved. “These are high-value chemicals used for pharmaceuticals.” That pathway, essentially a string of plant DNA, is inserted into the DNA of the bacteria and creates a new biological function, in this case the ability to turn pulp into a variety of acids.
The team continues to work on the technology and the development of a company – Upcycled Aromatics – complete with sufficient startup capital to carry it to commercialization.
- Newspapers, magazines and flyers are turned into pulp at the Edmonton waste management facility. Eighty per cent of the pulp is recycled back into paper products, but the fibres in the other 20 per cent are too degraded to be used that way.
- The U of A students propose to take that leftover pulp and feed it to their genetically-engineered Pseudomonas putida bacteria in a large fermenting machine.
- The bacteria would produce shikimic acid and cinnamic acid.
- Those acids can be used to produce plastics, fragrances and the flu vaccine Tamiflu, among other things.
The Business Case
As part of the competition, teams had to develop a business plan, and this is where the Alberta team stood out. “This was a great opportunity for the undergrads to become literate in the context of startup companies,” says faculty advisor and engineering professor Dominic Sauvageau, himself a veteran of commercializing university research. “The bio-economy in Alberta needs that.” Sauvageau says developing the business plan early in the process influenced how the technology has been and will be developed. “Often startup companies have the technology built but the economics of it are not established,” he says, “and they have to adjust much later on.”