Feeding industry’s needs
Extracting high-value compounds is set to become cheaper, easier and cleaner using a transformative technology developed by IRL.
IRL has been researching extraction technologies using dimethyl ether (DME) – a clean, colourless gas that is easy to liquefy and to transport – over the past decade with Ministry of Science and Innovation funding and support from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.
DME has now received approval as a food processing aid by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, opening the door to a raft of new opportunities across a range of food-related products and industry sectors.
IRL Commercialisation Manager Dr Wayne Eltringham says DME has advantages over conventional liquid organic solvents, which are harmful to the environment, hard to dispose of, risky to handle and may be present as residues in the final extracts.
Furthermore, DME outperforms supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2), seen as the gold standard alternative to liquid solvents for producing premium quality, natural food extracts.
“Supercritical CO2 can only be used to extract a limited range of compound types and only from dry starting materials,” Dr Eltringham says.
“DME, on the other hand, can extract a much broader range of compounds from both wet and dry materials.”
Because DME is easy to recycle through the extraction process, there is very little solvent wastage.
“The process preserves the natural properties of the extracts and leaves no solvent residues, which is important when making products like food or dietary supplements,” says Dr Eltringham.
Though flammable, DME is extremely safe if handled according to well-established codes of practice, says Principal Scientist Dr Steve Tallon. Dr Tallon has worked on DME technologies since 2002 and says one of the big challenges has been the need to design and assemble extraction equipment from scratch.
“Because the technology is so novel, we’ve had to prove the entire concept from fundamental properties through to demonstrating industrial and commercial feasibility,” he says.
As a result, IRL has created its own portable, easy-to-use pilot-scale plant, working closely with regulatory authorities to ensure it meets all the requirements for foodgrade production.
“If a company wants to evaluate the technology, we can programme the equipment for their application, locate it within their factory, and they can produce tens of kilos of market-ready product samples,” says Dr Tallon.
Ultimately, the plan is for New Zealand businesses to invest in their own commercial scale DME extraction plants. Dr Eltringham says keen industry interest in DME reflects its potential to offer products with a point of difference from those on the market.
“This might mean premium products that fetch a higher price or the ability to compete in established markets with a new offering that has added advantages, such as novel health benefits.”
He says in addition to the potential to increase returns from commodity products, DME represents an exciting opportunity to extract high-value compounds from current industry waste streams.
In the longer term, Dr Eltringham says, there is scope to adapt the existing DME technology for use in nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and a range of industrial processes such as removing impurities, recovering chemicals and recycling.
IRL has a patent portfolio for extracting lipid compounds from land and marine-based plant and animal materials using DME and a substantial amount of unpublished know-how in designing DME extraction plants and processes.