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Innovators 2011 part three – Keith Waldron

9 August 2011

In a series of three articles, BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2011 winners reveal the secrets behind their innovations.

In this, the third, Professor Keith Waldron details how his research and collaboration with industry partners has led to the development of a novel peat replacement from food chain wastes produced by a brand-new composting process. In the first, Professor Jason Swedlow explains how the Open Microscopy Environment uses open source imaging software to drive innovation and research across the life sciences. In the second, Professor Chris Lowe describes the commercial potential of 'smart holograms' and his history in spin-out companies.

In 2009 BBSRC established the annual Innovator of the Year competition to celebrate scientists who delivered science with high economic and social impact. Now, as in the past, innovation lies at the heart of the technological treadmill that can solve both local and global problems, drive economic growth, and make our lives longer, easier and happier (see 'The money of all invention').

Keith Waldron - Most Promising Innovator of the Year 2011

How does it feel to win?

I was really delighted. All my colleagues were too. We're really very pleased because it's a vindication of all the research that we've been carrying out. It's good to have some external recognition.

Professor Keith Waldron collects £5000 as Most Promising Innovator 2011 from Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science. Image: Andrew Davis

Professor Keith Waldron collects £5000 as Most Promising Innovator 2011 from Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science. Image: Andrew Davis

Describe your compost from food waste innovation…

Ultimately, it enables us to provide a good and reliable growing media peat replacement. Peat is generally a very good substrate for making horticultural growing media. It relies for its quality on residual plant structures which are derived from mosses and similar plants, without which you wouldn't obtain the correct qualities.

The thing about composting is that everyone thinks it's easy to produce something that's brown and earth-like and can be used as a peat replacement. However, during commercial composting, the organic matter almost completely degrades down to a pile of bacteria.

It is the structural components of the original plant material which one wants to keep. So we've developed a method to control the composting process to retain the structural elements of the plant material.

What goes in to make your compost?

We do take care what materials go in it. We've looked at a variety of food waste streams from the agri-food chain, including vegetable trimmings and fruit wastes…

You only use (food) industrial, not household waste?

Currently, yes, because these waste streams are traceable. Traceability is an important basis for making any good quality commercial product. Waste streams from household sources are usually untraceable. It's a safety, health and quality issue – it's important not to have sharp objects such as metal or glass in the compost because they could be hazardous.

The bioreactor. Image: IFR and Diverse Technologies Ltd

The bioreactor.
Image: IFR and Diverse Technologies Ltd

So 'garbage in, garbage out'?

We do have composting recipes. It is important to balance carbon and nitrogen in the mix to allow the microbial populations to work. There are various ratios that are well accepted in the industry. For different types of material there are a range of options. However if you don't have appropriate waste streams at the start, you won't obtain decent compost in the end.

What then happens to the waste in the bioreactor?

I can't go into the methodology because it is confidential, but I can tell you about composting generally. The most common involves windrow composting, where a range of microbial activities occur in a very large heap of material that is turned regularly. Composting is also carried out in vessel systems, but in both systems it's scientifically intriguing because there are so many heterogeneous activities.

Did you have a "Eureka!" moment?

Everyone asks me that! And, yes, I was sitting in potting shed with compost in one hand and a plant in the other thinking, "i've got to find a way of making this work". At that point I realised it was all about controlling the composting process.

When was that?

About six years ago… and this is the daft thing: sometimes you make a finding which sounds really great in principle. However, to scale it up for commercial exploitation presents a whole range of additional challenges that you have to meet. I didn't know so much about them at that stage. I know about them now. I think some of my hair has fallen out along the way.

What made you think of making compost from food chain waste?

That's an interesting question. I have spent the last 15 years working on how to exploit food chain waste streams. My background is in plant cell walls and plant cell structure. I spent many years understanding the role of plant cell walls in food quality – for example understanding the way in which the crispness of an apple is due to the cell wall.

I had developed many methods to pull the cell walls apart so as to look at the constituent polymers. I decided it might be useful to do the same at a larger scale with food waste streams in order to exploit the polymers industrially. However, I always found that I was left with a pile of residue at the end of the extraction process. Also, there are some waste streams that are not suitable for such exploitation. Disposal of all these residues is expensive. That's what made me want to start looking at how to exploit them as bulk residues. At same time people from industry contacted me wanting to improve peat alternatives and it seemed a logical step to link the problem to a solution.

Plants (Erysimum Fragrant Sunshine) grown using compost from the project. Image: Farplants

Plants (Erysimum Fragrant Sunshine) grown using compost from the project.
Image: Farplants

What were the first steps to commercialisation?

The first step involves protection of the intellectual property (IP) and that itself is another issue and takes time. However we finally had the patent granted in 2008 and a US patent is currently being evaluated.

Another key aspect of commercialisation involves gauging the market. And that is somewhat unclear, but there is a new white paper from Defra on replacing peat use over next 20 years. Like using other fossil fuels, it's cheaper to dig peat out of the ground and use it and commerce demands an end product to be profitable. But there are drivers – a push by consumers to use green alternatives, and green credentials that supermarkets want, and then there is the massive push to prevent waste through the landfill tax and costs from food waste processing increases every year. So those drivers make peat alternatives more attractive.

Importantly, the whole industrial arena changes constantly. For a project that might be three to four years in the making, the drivers important to industry might change. It's very important to keep a watching brief on what might be important in the future.

Why use peat alternatives at all?

It's an environmental issue. Mining peat can damage the landscape and may reduce biodiversity, and you're taking out of the ground a material that would otherwise be a carbon sink. Many of the UK's peat bogs have been mined already.

We've been replacing peat bit by bit and field trials show that we have good quality replacement at up to 75% compost:25% peat ratio, which is good enough to exploit.

Who are your collaborators on these trails?

We have collaborators throughout the value chain from food waste producers to horticultural media producers like Bulrush Horticulture Ltd. We've worked with commercial composters, Organic Recycling, and in terms of growing trials worked with Lincolnshire Herbs and with Farplants which is part of a consortium of growers, as well as retailers; they've helped us with market structure and given a supermarket's viewpoint.

What's it like working with such a wide range of different people and companies?

They all work within different boundaries and have different interests. And it's a question of communicating on a regular basis to keep them engaged and to get their best support – it's as much a challenge as the actual technology. Science on the bench is a long way from this type of integrative activity.

Plants (Lobelia) grown using compost from the project. Image: Farplants

Plants (Lobelia) grown using compost from the project. Image: Farplants

Is this your first commercialisation project like this?

Not the first time, I've run a number projects funded by Defra and the EU with other collaborators who all want to make a product a commercial reality, but it's often been "nearly but not quite". I suppose that's why they call me Most Promising Innovator – I've been promising to innovate for decades!

Your bioreactor product has a lower carbon footprint than peat – how do you measure this?

We use a full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) process, which evaluates the energy and water use, and the impact on different environmental issues such as carbon release and land use. It enables us to completely evaluate the production of the material, and compare it to other growing media. LCA is a good way to make sure you take into account everything: it stops you from making assumptions.

How key has BBSRC involvement been?

I work in a BBSRC institute [the Institute of Food Research, IFR] without which this work wouldn't have happened. The innovation has relied on the application of knowledge gained over 20-25 years of research. That research wouldn't have happened without the BBSRC. In addition, the IFR has provided a venue for the research.

I am very pro-institute – I think they are fabulous. To my mind mutually beneficial collaboration is key to success and institutes can build the necessary multidisciplinarity in one place.

What's been the best moment so far?

When we received the initial trial data back and it had worked. A fantastic feeling! You're never really quite sure until you get the trial data back that it'll all work out and that it does is very rewarding – for me and my colleagues and collaborators.

And the worst?

When you make a mistake in a calculation and something goes wrong or something breaks… that's always a nuisance.

The money of all invention

The UK has perhaps the richest history of scientific innovation of any country in the world, and the Royal Society report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity shows that innovation and commercialisation are flourishing in Britain.

For example, from 2006-10 university spinout companies have floated on the stock market or been taken over for a combined total of £3.5Bn and employ 14,000 people in the UK. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2008, patents granted to UK universities increased by 136% and university spin outs had a turnover of £1.1Bn in 2007/08 (ref 1).

Image: ErickN/iStockphoto

Science can be a big moneyspinner.
Image: ErickN/iStockphoto

The perception that the UK is not successful when it comes to commercialising science, or as some have put it: "Britain invents; the world profits" is therefore clearly outdated, and that strategies to harness and increase innovation are working.

In addition to the benefits it brings, it is argued that present £7.5Bn science budget pays for itself many times over as technology is developed and then taxed as it is sold. The Medical Research Council estimates every pound it spends brings a 39p return each year (ref 2). Moreover, independent studies have shown that for maximum market sector productivity and impact, government innovation policy should focus on direct spending on research councils (ref 3).

Finally, the UK produces more publications and citations for the money it spends on research than any other G8 nation. Specifically, the UK produces 7.9% of the world's publications, receives 11.8% of citations, and 14.4% of citations with the highest impact, even though the UK consists of only 1% of the world's population (ref 1).

References

  1. The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity (external link)
  2. Medical Research: What's it worth? (PDF, external link)
  3. Public support for innovation, intangible investment and productivity growth in the UK market sector (PDF, external link)

Contact

Arran Frood

tel: 01793 413329
fax: 01793 413382