Spinning chemical gold from waste

A chemical engineering student at UAlberta is working on an award-winning project to turn waste paper into valuable chemicals.

By Geoff McMaster on March 4, 2013

(Edmonton) Crystal Theodore’s career aspirations caught fire when she realized how the application of biochemistry could change the world. Now she’s a chemical engineering student at the U of A working on an award-winning project to turn waste paper into valuable chemicals, one of which is used in the anti-flu drug Tamiflu.

“As we continue to grow as a population around the world, it becomes more and more difficult to find solutions for our personal waste,” says Theodore, part of a team of interdisciplinary students who came up with the idea for a startup biotech company called Upcycled Aromatics.

“Finding a project that not only has a solution for the waste issues, but turns that into something that’s useful in other industries, is a really exciting advancement,” she says.

Last fall Theodore’s team won the prestigious International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their airtight business plan, which projects $4.5 million in annual revenues from the production of shikimic acid (used in Tamiflu) alone at just one site, using waste paper from the Edmonton Waste Management Centre.

“The waste that we’re using is paper fibres that can no longer be recycled,” says 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.”

The process works by genetically modifying a bacteria called Pseudomonas putida to feed on the cellulose in the pulp, converting it to glucose and then into different chemicals depending on the chemically engineered pathway. Theodore estimates that 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.

After graduating and taking their plan to full industrial scale, the team would like to diversify their feedstock, looking into other forms of waste in pulp and paper—and even in agriculture—that might hold 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,” says Theodore. “You can work in a lot of different industries and make a real difference in the world.”

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