Skip to Content

Novel strategies and materials for the recovery of high-value volatile fatty acids (VFAs) from organic residues

Novel strategies and materials for the recovery of high-value volatile fatty acids (VFAs) from organic residues


Outline, including interdisciplinary dimension

We propose to explore a new approach to the production and recovery of high value VFAs from organic waste streams. These intermediates, which are traditionally synthetized chemically from petroleum sources, have extensive commercial applications for production of various bio-based products, such as biofuels, biochemicals, polymers such as polyhydroxyalkanoates, feeds and pharmaceuticals. Our approach involves combining: i) a novel mixed culture anaerobic fermentation system – developed by our collaborators in NUIG – used for production of high yields of targeted VFAs from organic residues; and ii) a range of novel natural and synthetic polymer-based sorbents - developed within QUB - for VFA capture and recovery from fermentation leachates or liquid streams. By combining these two technologies there exists a unique opportunity to develop a technology for the production and purification of high value VFAs from organic waste streams. Yet only through an improved understanding of the scientific basis of these processes can their full potential as commercially viable VFA removal and recovery systems be realised. This new initiative we will draw together a unique multidisciplinary group of scientists and use the expertise and experience in both NUIG and QUB to develop a combined process that will be of benefit to both those industries producing organic waste streams and those utilizing VFAs as a platform chemical. This is reflected in the diversity of companies wishing to engage with the project and their willingness to supply feedstocks for the technology trialing phase of this proposal, including Devenish Nutrition, Dale Farm and Moy Park.

Key words/descriptors

renewable resources, sustainable development, volatile fatty acids, biomass utilisation, fermentation

First supervisor

Dr Panagiotis Manesiotis - School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

Secondary supervisor from a complementary discipline

Dr John McGrath - School of Biological Sciences

Supervisors’ track record of PhD completions, plus excellence and international standing in the project area

Dr Manesiotis has successfully co-supervised 3 PhD students and is currently supervising 2 PhD students in QUB. He is an expert in molecular imprinting, polymer chemistry and synthetic receptors as well as polymer based sorbents for selective extraction of valuable compounds from complex environments. He has published 23 research papers, 4 book and encyclopaedia chapters and has an h-index of 12. He is regular reviewer for all major international peer-review analytical and materials journals in topics such as materials for separations, chromatography and molecular imprinting. He is also guest editor of special issues for the Journal of Chromatography B, and Molecular Imprinting.

Intersectoral exposure and/or international mobility

(e.g. secondments to/collaboration with partner organizations)

The project will be conducted in collaboration with the group of Prof Vincent O'Flaherty from NUIG, an expert in anaerobic fermentation, who has developed pilot scale reactor for the study of the fermentation process of organic waste. It is envisaged that the materials developed and scaled-up in QUB will be tested by the PhD student in the collaborating laboratories in Galway. Furthermore, the student will have the opportunity to participate in the implementation of the novel sorbents on-site at the waste treatment plants of collaborating insdustrial partners in NI and ROI. To this end, the student is expected to complete at least 2x4 month secondments in collaborating partner laboratories, exposing them to the areas of chemical engineering, reactor design, microbiology and fermentation process engineering.

Describe briefly the international profile of the partner

Prof. O’Flaherty has 10 years’ experience in the area of anaerobic biofilm and microbial ecology research, focused on: anaerobic biofilm reactor technology for biorefining, energy production and wastewater treatment; Control of biofilms in infectious disease settings and the microbial ecology of anaerobic biofilms and soil ecosystems. He has successfully and consistently secured research funding from Irish and EU programmes to a total value of €8.5m, from sources including the Irish Environmental Protection Agency, The Higher Education Authority, Enterprise Ireland, EU Framework Programmes, and the Irish Research Council. He is a Science Foundation Ireland Principal Investigator through a Charles Parson Energy Research Award. He has published over 200 scientific communications, including 75 papers in leading international, peer-reviewed, journals.

Training that will be provided through the research project itself

During the conduct of the project the student will he trained on natural and synthetic polymer chemistry, including polymer modification and characterisation, using techniques such as solution and solid state NMR, UV-Vis, HPLC, GC, GPC, surface area analysis and FT-IR. Furthermore, they will be trained on the evaluation of sorbent binding properties, including fitting of experimental data to adsorption models for derivation of thermodynamic parameters. Through collaboration with the group of JMcG and NUIG, they will be trained on basic microbiological techniques, reactor design and large-scale adsorption from fermentation systems.

Examples of additional training in non-research transferable skills

The student will be trained on project management, literature survey, use of modeling software packages, presentation of scientific results, preparation oF scientific publications and report writing. The student will join a highly research transferable skills interdisciplinary, international team of researchers, and will thus acquire interpersonal communcasion skills and Ihe ability to work in a team. Furthermore, given the innovative nature of the project with immediate opportunities for commercial ceploitatton, it is eapected that the student will he involved in the process of preparing and filling a patent.

Expected dissemination of results: peer-reviewed journals, seminars, workshop and conferences at European/international level

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

Any non-confidential findings of the proposed project will be submitted for publication in international peer-review journals. The student will have the opportunity to develop their presentation skills in the regular research seminars organised by the PM and JMcG groups, as well as the regular (every 3 months) meetings with the NUIG partners. They will also be expected to present their work in at least one major international conference. Lastly, PM is the co- organiser of the Graduate Student Symposium on Molecular imprinting, held every two years since 2001 in the facilities of European academic partners. The student will be given the opportunity to present their work to their peers in the form of an oral and/or poster presentation.

Expected impact activities

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

Our work will be pretented in QUB and CCE/BSC open days. Pilot scale reactors will be setup within our facilities and will be used to showcase the operation of our materials in the capture of valuable compounds from organic waste to visiting school pupils. Relevant announcements will be made on social media feeds and professional networking websites.