The A$10.9m ($7.4m) Agricultural Product Development Research Consortium, based at Adelaide University, was formed a year ago, but has now been given the green light to develop molecules from produce that cannot be sold to supermarkets that can be used commercially at scale, according to its lead investigator, Vincent Bulone.
Dr Bulone, a professor of glycomics at the university’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, will co-ordinate a team of 15-20 academics and 18 commercial and research partners in an initiative that is heavily funded by the South Australian state government. Following a year of legal legwork, the consortium launched on October 22.
His team will investigate a number of processes to repurpose agricultural waste for a range of industries. On the anvil will be ultraviolet-protective molecules that can be used as sunscreen by modifying different polymers with UV absorbing materials. The work stems from a study Dr Bulone published in 2015 that used chitosans extracted from shrimp shells and crabs.
“But there is also chitosan in mushrooms, and this is what we will use in the consortium, as well as cellulose. This is because chitosan from mushrooms and cellulose is a plant carbohydrate, therefore we are not using animals which will probably have a negative impact on the marketing of the product,” he said.
“It’s always easier to market something from plants than from animals when it is for human use. We are looking for alternative sources of polymers that we can modify in a certain way, as what we did from chitins and chitosans a few years back.”
Anthocyanins for cosmetics
Work will also begin on anthocyanins from various crops, including apples, cherries and berries. These will have a number of applications, from food colourants to cosmetics uses due to their antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
“We have in the project quite a strong focus on the discovery of different bioactives, which we will separate and extract, determine their properties and hopefully be able to develop new products from these new molecules,” Dr Bulone added.
A well-funded initiative that draws on the expertise of local and international commercial and academic partners would be a dream for any research team and university finance departments. The consortium also aims to make a lot of farmers happy in Australia’s breadbasket state, which is known for the crops it grows, as well as the unused produce it wastes.
Growers are stretched in terms of the margins they make simply because the quality supermarkets demand is extremely stringent. As a result, the volume of the biomass they harvest that does not go to retailers continues to increase.
Instead, it goes to low-value products like animal feed and in some circumstances farmers will burn it or have to pay to have it removed from the farm. The aim of the consortium is to convert as close as possible to all the waste materials into value-added products.
“It is very important for farmers that we try to add value to this biomass, and the best way to do this is to derive from a single crop as many products as possible by doing sequential extraction of as many molecules as possible, and exploit each of these molecules for a multitude of products,” said Dr Bulone.