Researchers at Memorial are looking for unique uses for materials that are generally seen as waste. But unlike other scientists, Dr. Fran Kerton and her green chemistry research group are turning to the oceans, as opposed to the land, for new sources of biomass to make renewable chemicals.
The team recently had an article about their work, titled Green chemistry and the ocean-based biorefinery, published in the journal Green Chemistry, a publication by the Royal Society of Chemistry. It detailed their efforts and those of others to use marine sourced feedstocks for chemicals and materials production, particularly waste from shellfish and finfish processing as well as the use of algae.
“We don’t have a lot of high quality land,” said Dr. Kerton. “So using it to grow crops to be used as alternatives for petrochemicals is a waste, especially for countries with a growing population.”
She says while researchers at other universities are looking elsewhere for reusable sources of materials, very few are looking towards the ocean.
“It’s a bit controversial,” she said. “About 95 per cent of people interested in renewable chemicals and chemicals from biomass are working on land-based materials. Half are focusing on crops and the other half are focusing on municipal, forestry or food industry waste – things that don’t have much value – to see if it can be converted into something useful. But very few people are looking at ocean-based biomass.”
Dr. Kerton says there is already a precedent for using oceans to develop new, sustainable technologies, such as putting wind farms on barges out at sea so land space isn’t wasted. But there remains a challenge in using material from beneath the waves as a source of fuel.
“With so many of us living near the coast, I don’t know why more people don’t look at the oceans and wonder what’s there, what can we use in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way?”
The group is currently working on extracting sugars from the biopolymer of shrimp, lobster and crab shells to see if it can be turned into new products.
“Biopolymers are made up of sugars linked together,” she explains. “So we have extracted this long chain of biopolymer from the waste shells. What we’ve been trying to do is break that into individual sugars and make those into a new, smaller molecules that potentially can be built into something else – either a pharmaceutical or a new plastic.”
While they don’t yet have an industry partner or much of a market for the research, Dr. Kerton believes that it could have potential for countries that have a large fishery industry. Even without a demand she feels it’s still an area worth investigating.
“It’s an interesting field and you begin looking at things in a different way,” added Dr. Kerton. “You are always thinking ‘If I was to get rid of this, what else could it be made into? How can we not end up putting this into a landfill site or burning it?’
“Sometimes there are no other options, but sometimes you can get more high-tech materials from the waste that can add value and perhaps even spawn a new industry.”