New Recycling Process for Phosphates

01/06/2021

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Lars Blank

Head of the Institute of Applied Microbiology

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+49 241 80 26600

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On May 31, microbiologist Dr. Jonas Christ was presented with the Innovation Award of the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia. The award is worth 50,000 euros.

 

Christ, a researcher at the Institute of Applied Microbiology headed by Professor Lars M. Blank, has developed a recycling process which uses baker’s yeast for the intracellular conversion of phosphate into polyphosphate. In a second step, pure bio-polyphosphate or polyphosphate-rich yeast extract can be obtained from the loaded yeast.

Phosphate is an essential mineral in the diet of all living things; it forms a key component of DNA and is important for energy transfers in cells. Fossil phosphate ore reserves are mainly mined in Morocco, but also, to a lesser extent, in the U.S., China, and India, and then typically processed into fertilizer for crops. As a result, humans take in phosphate through their food. Furthermore, phosphate leaches into waterways and thus into the oceans, where new fossil phosphate ore reserves are formed over millions of years. However, much more phosphate is mined than is naturally replenished.

Phosphate deposits will be depleted in the U.S., China and India in less than 40 years and globally in a few hundred years. Similar to petroleum, it is a scarce resource; however, it cannot be replaced. "Phosphate scarcity is a global problem that is often overlooked. This is where my research comes in. An interdisciplinary application of microbial, chemical, and physical processes is critical to solving this problem," explains Christ.

As part of his doctoral research, Christ developed a process that makes it possible biotechnologically to extract valuable polyphosphate from unused phosphate waste streams. "Polyphosphate is a more valuable end product than simple phosphate, has different chemical properties, and is suitable for several applications, for example in food production," explains Professor Blank.

Development of Two Products

Ultimately, two products were developed: a polyphosphate-rich yeast extract based on baker's yeast and pure organic polyphosphate. The yeast extract has already been successfully tested by a collaboration partner in the production of meat sausage. It is not possible to produce meat sausages without phosphates. In the past, this was only possible using chemically produced phosphates, but now the biological alternative opens up new possibilities. as a replacement for chemically produced phosphates, there are other applications of pure bio-polyphosphate, for example in the production of processed cheese.

As an intracellular product, polyphosphate must first be extracted from the baker's yeast cells and subsequently analyzed. Christ developed an analytical polyphosphate extraction method which is capable of extracting 40 percent more polyphosphate from baker's yeast than the best methods available to date. Furthermore, the process is much faster than traditional methods. In addition, the analytics he developed can be performed using standard laboratory equipment. His polyphosphate analytics is now being commercialized by a Dutch company under the brand name Phosfinity.

The NRW Innovation Award is one of the most valuable awards of its kind in Germany. It was presented to Dr. Christ by Andreas Pinkwart, Minister of Economic Affairs, Innovation, Digitalization and Energy of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.