Engineers boosting food production while reducing waste and pollution Friday, 27 July 2018

The world’s population is expected to top 8.5 billion within 12 years so the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Sydney is looking at new sustainable ways of food production and reducing pollution.

Perspex vats of microalgae are bubbling away in Dr Dale McClure’s lab in an effort to improve the growth and efficiency of specific strains of microalgae. This substance comprises naturally occurring organisms that produce small, vital elements of the food chain which include Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins like K1 (essential for blood coagulation), and food colourants. They also metabolise nutrients that could be harmful if released into the environment.

One of Dr McClure’s foci is on fish farming as aquaculture supplies more than 50% of global fish consumption.

“In the outside world, fish farm by-products like nitrogen and phosphates can lead to algal blooms,” Dr McClure says.  

“Our research shows by encouraging the right microalgae to grow under the right conditions, we can use them to remove some of the more damaging pollutants while producing key nutrients like Omega 3s that can be used to both encourage fish growth and provide health benefits for end consumers.”

Dr McClure is working with Sydney-based food company Green Camel that uses the waste water from fish farming to produce organically grown herbs for some of Australia’s largest supermarket chains. This effectively makes the waste stream from one process the feedstock for another.

The company believes the idea of inserting microalgae into the production loop is a positive step. By putting Omega 3 microalgae into the fish tanks it reduces feeding costs while maintaining organic certification.

The Centre for Excellence in Advanced Food Enginomics (CAFÉ), also in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is also working on initiatives to support future food supply. Led by Professor Fariba Dehghani, her team is focusing on ways to transform orange peel waste into a supplement for cancer patients in remission, and printable food ink sensors to detect gases from bacteria as food deteriorates. This has the potential to lead to more accurate food freshness ratings and in turn, less waste.

Dr McClure says, like most engineers, the whole point of their research is to have “some kind of tangible benefit for society. “It makes people healthier and cleans up the environment,” he says, adding that chemical and biomolecular engineers have “barely scratched the surface”.