Researcher turns glycerin into omega-3 fatty acids

By Kris Bevill | August 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted August 27, 2008 at 11:27 a.m. CST

With the expected increase of biodiesel production next year in order to meet the renewable fuels standard mandate, more glycerin is also expected to enter the market. Recently, an assistant professor of biological engineering systems at Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences found a niche that could prove to be an interesting use for the biodiesel byproduct.

Zhiyou Wen began working on converting glycerin to omega-3 fatty acids in 2004 when he was a post-doctorate at Washington State University in Pullman. In 2005, Wen brought the knowledge learned in Washington with him when he began his tenure at Virginia Tech, where he continues to work on advancing his research.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been determined to be essential to the human diet. However, they are not produced naturally in the human body and must be obtained through food. Certain types of fish are known to host omega-3s, but Wen's believes he can grow the fatty acids and insert them into any fish, as well as other food products.

Wen and his team have developed a fermentation process in which crude glycerin received from biodiesel production plants is used as a carbon source for microalgae to produce omega-3 fatty acids. After the fatty acids are produced, the algae can be used as animal feed. The animals are then consumed by humans, which finalizes the transfer of omega-3s from microalgae to animal to human.

Although Wen's product has yet to be tested by the USDA, his own comparisons with other like-products have had positive results. "After thorough chemical analysis, we have also shown that the algae biomass composition has the same quality as the commercial algae product," he said, adding that tests conducted on fish that were fed his algae showed significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

The work being conducted at Virginia Tech is very small-scale. The largest fermentor in Wen's lab is a 100-liter (26.52 gallon) container. However, the purpose of his research so far has been only to prove that the process produces as good a product as what is already on the market, and he is confident that the goal has been achieved. Wen and his team are now investigating the possibility of turning the algae into chicken feed, which would result in chickens and eggs with added omega-3 fatty acids. Another possible omega-3 market Wen is looking into is infant formula, although he said it's a long ways off because the project is small and wouldn't be economically feasible.

The benefit of this product for biodiesel producers, according to Wen, would be the ability to sell their crude glycerin to other processors, such as biotech companies, who would then be able to use it to produce the fatty acids. So far, Wen has received glycerin from West Point, Va.-based Virginia Biodiesel Refinery and Seattle Biodiesel, in order to test various geographic regions for his product. He said so far, no matter where it comes from, the glycerin is all the same and has the same potential.

Wen's research is being funded by several food industry groups, including the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association and Virginia Commercial Fisheries and Shellfish Technologies. Additional funding has been provided by the Virginia Agricultural Council, the Fats and Proteins Research Foundation, and the Virginia Sea Grant.
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