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Nov. 19, 2019

Business and forestry researchers partner to create sweet revenue

Bahar Aliakbarian, research leader at the Axia Institute and fixed-term faculty in MSU’s Broad College supply chain management department, was recently awarded a grant from the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization, or MTRAC, program to uncover ways to capitalize on cherry waste, in collaboration with researchers from MSU’s Department of Forestry.

Cherry by-products — like pomace, tar and pits — have unique residual substances rich in valuable intracellular compounds, such as polyphenols with antioxidant properties. Most of these by-products are ultimately wasted, although some of them are used for animal feed, fuel or preparation of activated carbons.

“It is important to understand that these biomasses represent a viable, untapped opportunity to realize economic and social benefits - once recovered and efficiently valorized,” Aliakbarian said. “Our proposed platform, in long term, constitutes a biorefinery that could be scaled-up to an industrial platform for the food supply chain to become a value chain addressing also food waste management.”

At the national level, the aim of this project, titled “Creating Incremental Revenue from Industrial Cherry Wastes,” aligns well with the USDA goals of reducing food waste, decreased by 50% by 2030, and improving food safety.

The research team is working to not only reduce the amount of cherry biomass that ends up in landfills but also uncover ways to generate revenue from this waste. Once recovered and processed, the cherry by-products, still rich in nutrients, represent an extremely viable but untapped solution for minimizing environmental impact and expanding Michigan’s cherry revenue.

The outcome of the process is a powder that is rich in bioactive compounds with enhanced bioavailability, water solubility and stability compared to synthetic and non-encapsulated antioxidants. The application of these natural high-value-added materials is broad and could include use as pharmaceuticals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, active packaging with antibacterial properties and anti-aging cosmetic formulation ingredients. Other opportunities include food integrators with antioxidant benefits.

“This MTRAC funding will allow us to optimize the proposed technology, create new evidences, generate visibility to this MSU technology, generate sufficient results to solicit additional external funds and develop further analysis,” Aliakbarian said. “Our final aim is to formulate active packaging and active coating with antibacterial properties which has not been previously developed.”

Importantly, the biorefinery platform upon which this research is based can be extended to by-products from other foods, such as apples, berries, grapes, olives and corn, each of which produces biomass with rich nutrient by-products. The use of these techniques to repurpose waste in other areas has the potential to yield even greater economic and social benefits.

“Once the technology is sufficiently de-risked, which includes the activities of this proposal, they have the desire to option or license the technology,” Aliakbarian said. “This is a great opportunity for our team to transfer our several years of laboratory scale research platform into a real, industrial world.”

This MSU research project addresses the triple bottom line by reducing environmental impacts and cutting waste, increasing revenue and profits for Michigan’s cherry industry and providing social and health benefits through the use of antioxidants.

Additional details on this research, as well as the other research projects in Axia’s portfolio, are available at the Axia Institute website.