Wei-Shan Chen, PhD student in Environmental Technology and Environmental Systems Analysis at Wageningen University, won two prizes recently for his outstanding and novel research on valorising organic waste and other biomass residues. The first prize is from the Ministry of Education of the Taiwanese government. The second award is from Delta Electronics Foundations.
The award of the Ministry of Education of the Taiwanese government is an annual prize to award outstanding Taiwanese PhD students abroad. Around 10 awards are given to each study domain. Wei-Shan Chen received the award for the technology and engineering domain. The second award is from Delta Electronics Foundations. Delta Electronics (Taiwan) is one of the leading electronic companies in the world and also one of the pioneers in sustainable transformation of electronic industry. Every year they award outstanding environmental PhD and MSc students, who are studying in the Netherlands.
Wei-Shan Chen’s research is about Mixed Culture Chain Elongation (MCCE). MCCE is an emerging biotechnology that utilises microorganisms to convert organic waste into biochemicals that have diverse biochemical applications such as antimicrobial or food additives. MCCE consists of two steps. First, an acidification step in which complex organic matter in the waste streams is bio-degraded into basic building blocks like acetate and carbon dioxide. Second, a chain elongation step in which acetate and carbon dioxide is elongated with externally added ethanol into Medium Chain Fatty Acid.
MCCE has many advantages, Wei-Shan Chen explains: “In the first place, technology. We use mixed culture microorganisms, so we can avoid sterilisation and genetic modification. In the second place, broad feedstock spectrum: low grade biomass residual streams that can be converted into acetate CO2 and ethanol can all be potential feedstock to MCCE. There is also an easier product separation: products with longer carbon chain have lower solubility and are easier to separate. All these features make MCCE a potentially clean, renewable and economic bioprocess that converts organic waste into useful commodity chemicals. At this moment MCCE has been commercialised by a spin-off, Chiancraft in Amsterdam.”
Based on current technology development ethanol is the most expensive chemical used in this biotechnology. Therefore, research is directed to develop bioprocesses with alternative feedstock that are widely available and will bring environmental benefit. Wei-Shan Chen succeeded in replacing ethanol with novel lignocellulose-based chemicals, which have the potential to be cheaper, easier accessible and more renewable than ethanol. This work was presented in an international conference, and it was selected to be presented in the coming Anaerobic Digestion Congress in Chile. The first publication of MCCE with this new feedstock is also coming soon.
In addition to the biotechnological work, Wei-Shan Chen also dedicates to improve MCCE from the industrial and environmental perspectives: “I am now working on an environmental impact assessment for quantifying the environmental impacts arose by MCCE implementation, which is of use to formulate further optimisation strategies for MCCE. I will continue my PhD work until end of 2016, by when I expect to link the environmental impact assessment with the most recent technological development.”