Peat research yields several practical applications

By Tammy Hardiman

In Newfoundland, peatlands cover an area larger than the province's agricultural lands, yet the use of peat as an economic resource is poor. The majority of peat used as fertilizer comes from other areas of Canada, such as Quebec and New Brunswick. Dr. Antonio Martin, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Memorial University, has spent several years researching various high-value applications of this abundant resource.

Dr. Martin and his research team have developed a process of

peat hydrolysis, and studied the effect of the composition of the

resulting extracts on the growth of micro-organisms. When carbohydrates--like cellulose--are extracted from the peat they are hydrolysed to glucose and other sugars. Fermentation is one process that normally requires sugars, and many of the micro-organisms of commercial interest cannot metabolize cellulose: it must be converted to sugars using the process studied by Dr. Martin.

Extracted sugars can be used to grow mushroom mycelium, which has potential uses in the food industry as a source of flavor in canned products and soups. Exotic mushrooms - which have high market value - have also been cultivated using peat as the nutrient source.

Dr. Martin's current research project, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), involves the use of peat in waste treatment.

"Peat is a good filter as it has a high surface area per unit volume and is very porous," Dr. Martin said. "It has good absorption characteristics."

Dr. Martin and his research team have developed a filter, called a biocolumn, that uses the physical properties of peat to absorb pollutants such as oil, harmful gases, and contaminant substances in waste water from fisheries and aquaculture operations. A standard filtration system only removes contaminants, and the filter can reach a point of saturation.

Dr. Martin has shown that peat is able to sustain microbial populations, since it contains the nutrients necessary for their growth. Some of the micro-organisms are able to degrade the contaminants that are filtered out by the biocolumn. Thus, the peat not only acts as a filter, but also promotes the growth of organisms that clean the filter. The biocolumn has important environmental applications, can be used on a large scale, and is suitable for gas and liquid filtration systems.

"All the components in the peat are useful. The solid fraction from the peat hydrolysis--when it is compressed and dried--has the consistency of wood. These dried blocks can be used for burning fire logs or as barbecue briquettes."

As a result of Dr. Martin's research, many other uses for peat are being discovered. An important application in fish farming is the development of yeasts grown in peat extracts to be used as feed; some of these feeds produce the pink flesh color of salmon and trout. The fish usually get this color through their diet; if not, synthetic colors can be used but they are expensive and there are toxicity concerns. Peat offers a potentially inexpensive and viable alternative.

Peat has many applications that could be of value to the local economy; there are several opportunities for industrial development. Its medicinal qualities have been scientifically documented, and therapeutic peat baths are a long-established practice in Europe; peat baths in this province could become a tourist attraction. It has been confirmed that some peat components have anti- inflammatory properties and are beneficial to the skin. Dr. Martin said peat extracts could be incorporated in lotions and creams used in the cosmetic industry.