Innovative Ideas for New Markets

By Jessica Meisinger, Director of Education, Science, and Communication
Fats and Proteins Research Foundation

One of the main priorities of the Fats and Proteins Research Foundation (FPRF) is to fund research to discover non-feed uses of rendered products. Uses for processed animal proteins and fats beyond animal feed could increase marketing options and rendering profitability in the future. New product innovation is needed to drive potential market demand for rendered products. One of the challenges in this area has been finding researchers to focus on end uses not only in demand now but also those that could add value in the future. Currently there are two projects at the Animal Co-Products Research and Education Center (ACREC) at Clemson University that are strong examples of new uses research; one project is focused on proteins while the other is on animal fats.

The first is Dr. Srikanth Pilla’s project, “Self-healing rendered protein based thermosets for high-value automotive application.” The overarching objective of this research is to develop high-strength, toughened, self-healing, cross-linked thermoset composites from animal proteins. This is important because the automotive industry is mandated to make vehicles more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly by 2020. One way to do that is making a vehicle weigh less by using lightweight components derived from animal proteins.

There are always unexpected developments or difficulties to overcome in research. Pilla’s group encountered such issues during the initial stage of this research, especially in getting the animal protein to react with epoxy polymers necessary to create high-strength composites for automotive applications. They recognized the problem might be that the epoxy is strongly hydrophobic and the animal protein is hydrophilic, hindering complete cross-linking. They hypothesized that a hydrophilic polymer matrix would have much better reactivity and validated this hypothesis when the researchers created a unique animal protein-waterborne polyurethane hybrid polymer. It not only exhibited excellent compatibility between the constituents but also demonstrated a highly cross-linked architecture. Currently the researchers are working toward applying a similar technology to a water-based epoxy system with excellent mechanical properties.

Epoxy is widely used in the automotive industry. Imparting self-repairing capability to epoxy systems can make them highly recyclable, leading to a considerably reduced environmental footprint of a vehicle. Pilla plans to introduce nano/microcapsules with hydrophilic agents into the epoxy-animal protein matrix to impart self-healing characteristics to the newly developed epoxy substance. This will lead to higher acceptance of the new composite by the automotive industry, creating enhanced value of animal proteins.

The researchers managed to develop capsules that were of optimal size for self-healing applications and found by using a fluorescent dye that the capsules could encompass the healing agent within the shell. However, the constructed capsules were not robust enough to withstand the harsh environment encountered during manufacturing. Pilla’s group is currently working on this problem and trying to optimize capsule shell thickness and strength.

ACREC is conducting another project to increase the value of animal fats. The goal of Dr. Mark Blenner’s project, “Biocatalytic conversion of rendered animal fats to value-added products including omega-3 fatty acids,” is to develop a process for converting saturated and monounsaturated animal fats into polyunsaturated fatty acids that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids commonly found in fish oil. Fish oil is expensive and unsustainable – fish are caught to process into fish meal and fish oil that are then fed to other fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are also costly but vital for the aquaculture industry. Companies have shown it is possible to use genetically modified yeast to convert glucose into omega-3 fatty acids, but Blenner theorizes that animal fats are a better starting point than these products because they have the potential to be more efficient. He has found that no physical pretreatment, such as emulsification, was needed for growth, efficient hydrolysis, and fatty acid utilization on beef tallow or poultry fat, making the process more efficient. Blenner’s team is currently working on developing an optimized pathway for this process and looking toward additional oleochemical products that could be made from rendered fats. Microbial synthesis of omega-3 fatty acids from animal fats can provide a reliable and economic source to either replace fish oil or to enable further expansion of aquaculture.

Both of these projects are excellent examples of out-of-the-box thinking and the innovative ideas that result from having different types of researchers understand the rendering industry and propose diverse projects to FPRF. While it is vital to fund traditional research to maintain use of rendered products in animal feed and pet food, it is equally important to fund innovative projects that could lead to new uses of rendered products. Both of these projects are potentially patentable, which could in turn lead to another funding stream for more innovative FPRF research.

October 2016 RENDER | back