Solution for wastewater in bioplastics and food additives
EU-funded project AFTERLIFE is developing a technology that filters, treats and converts the wastewater from the food and drink industry into bioplastics and food additives. The European Commission has posted a success story about this project led by IDENER:
The food and drink industry is the third most water-thirsty industrial manufacturing sector in Europe. It uses around 4.9 m3 of water per inhabitant per year and generates around 3 700 million m3 of wastewater annually. This wastewater contains organic molecules and other potentially harmful particles that could pollute the environment.
However, there is an alternative. Wastewater from the industry contains valuable molecules that could also be extracted and given a second life, turning the water into a resource and helping to integrate the food and drink industry into the emerging circular economy.
EU-funded project AFTERLIFE is developing innovative technology that will filter and extract valuable elements from the wastewater and convert them into bioplastics and food additives, as well as purifying the water.
“AFTERLIFE means a significant improvement to even the best waste-water-treatment technologies available today. We are developing a flexible, cost and resource-efficient process to completely recover suspended and soluble matter – and value – from wastewater,” says former project coordinator Paolo Stufano of the Eggplant company in Italy.
The project is targeting the dairy, fruit-processing and sweet-manufacturing industries which account for around 40 % of total investment in waste-water treatment in the food-processing sector.
AFTERLIFE researchers are developing the technology that will separate the different components found in the wastewater, including antioxidants, flavonoids, colourants, sweeteners, proteins, oligopeptides, amino acids and essential oils. These elements originate from the food and drink industry but are lost during the conventional waste-water treatment process.
The solids are removed from the water by using a series of membrane filtration units made from micro-, ultra- and nano-filtration and reverse osmosis systems. Each membrane isolates different types of high-value molecules and nutrients. Proper separation of the suspended and diluted compounds has been achieved in this first stage of the project while the developments continue in order to maximise the performance.
Once they have been isolated, the molecules – such as flavonoids and essential oils – can be commercialised and used in sectors like cosmetics, food (including meat, fruit and dairy products) and medicine as natural additives. Molecules isolated in the frame of the AFTERLIFE project will be tested for the development of end products for the food sector.
Meanwhile, the sugars extracted from the water can be fermented into organic acids and then converted into bioplastics which are suitable for packaging food, electronics and biomedicine. AFTERLIFE researchers are currently investigating the best uses for these bioplastics.
At the same time, the filtration process cleans the water and leaves it pure enough to be returned to a water body such as a river or reused in the AFTERLIFE filtration system. Any residual waste like sludges will be used to produce biogas, providing energy for the AFTERLIFE system.
The technology integrates existing technologies from traditional waste-water treatment systems and the bioplastics industry. “Traditional wastewater treatment doesn’t allow for the recovery of molecules, while conventional bioplastic production doesn’t use wastewater as a raw material for fermentation. Our process boosts value and cuts costs in bioplastic production,” says Stufano.
AFTERLIFE aims to demonstrate its pilot technology on industrial wastewater from the dairy, fruit-processing and sweet sectors, as well as to produce bioplastic materials by around 2022.
The AFTERLIFE concept has already been patented and 10 SMEs in the project consortium are ready to commercialise it. Once it is up and running, the technology will be adaptable to other industrial sectors.
AFTERLIFE is a project funded under the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU), a EUR 3.7 billion public-private partnership between the European Commission and the industry.