Sep 27, 2018 | By Thomas

Genecis, a student startup founded by engineers and graduates of the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), is using micro-organisms, microbial engineering and machine learning to turn restaurant food waste into biodegradable plastics (PHAs) that can be used to make toys, flexible packaging, 3D printing filament and medical applications including surgical staples, sutures and stints.

“More than $1 trillion worth of food is wasted globally every year," said Luna Yu, founder and CEO of Genecis. "What we’re able to do is take this waste and turn it into something of higher value.”

After completing her undergrad and master's degree at UTSC, she met several talented engineers at a start-up that converted restaurant food waste into biogas, and learned about the microbiology of converting discarded food into other materials. Shortly after that, she collaborated with a fellow environmental science student at The Hub, U of T Scarborough’s entrepreneurial incubator, to figure out what other products could be made from food waste.

“We looked at different types of bio-rubbers and bio-chemicals before landing on PHAs. We felt it had the biggest market potential.”  

PHAs, or polyhydroxyalkanoates, are a type of high quality biodegradable polymer produced by bacteria that have many benefits over other forms of bio-plastics. They can be a thermoplastic, meaning it can be easily moulded and remoulded into different products. Also, unlike many other forms of bio-plastics, it won’t ruin the recycling process.

“Many people throw bio-plastics into the recycling bin rather than the compost, but if it’s not a thermoplastic, it can’t be remoulded,” Yu said. “This disrupts the physical properties of new recycled products — they will end up falling apart.” But PHAs won’t cause this problem if it accidentally ends up in recycling bins.

PHAs degrade within one year in a terrestrial environment, and under 10 years in marine environments. Meanwhile, synthetic plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade in similar environments.

Genecis uses a three-step process to produce its PHAs. First, they use a mixture of anaerobic (without oxygen) bacteria that breaks down the food waste into volatile fatty acids, similar to how food is broken down in our stomachs. Next, the fatty acids are added to a mixed culture of aerobic (with oxygen) bacteria that are specially selected to produce PHAs in their cells. Finally, they use an extraction process to break open the cells, collect and purify the plastic.

The entire process takes less than seven days from getting the food waste to having the purified plastic, while a similar process to produce biogas takes an average of 21 days.

Genecis currently has two locations. Their main lab in U of T’s Banting and Best Building where they work with pilot-scale bioreactors, and the other in the Environmental Science and Chemistry Building at U of T Scarborough, which is responsible for research and development. The company will open its demonstration plant later next year, and it will be able to convert three tonnes of organic waste into PHAs weekly.

A small bio-reactor at Genecis's lab at U of T Scarborough, which is being used to help optimize their production process. 

“We’re fine-tuning things to figure out the best conditions to operate our bacteria cultures,” says Vani Sankar, Genecis’s head of biotechnology and a postdoc at U of T Scarborough. “This includes what combinations of temperature, pH and amount of food will give us the best yield.”

In less than two years of operation, Genecis has won more than $330,000 in prize money from start-up competitions. Genecis is using the prize money to build prototypes of their automated machines that can collect and process organic materials on-site. Once completed, Yu said that a single machine will be able to offset 243 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year. “Standard passenger vehicles release 4.7 tonnes of CO2 every year, which means a restaurant can offset the emissions of 51.7 cars just by using one of our machines,” added Yu.

Meanwhile Genecis has cultured and isolated hundreds of species of bacteria that currently don’t exist in databases. “Our goal is to create the highest value from organic waste,” said Yu.

“Soon we will be able to synthesize speciality chemicals and other materials from organic waste, all at a lower cost than traditional production methods using synthetic biology,” she said.

Those specialty chemicals can be used in a range of products including those found in cosmetics and the health and wellness industry, said Yu. “It’s a really exciting time for us.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application

Source: UTSC


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