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Dr. Amar K. Mohanty

Dr. Amar Mohanty

Professor & OAC Distinguished Research Chair in Sustainable Biomaterials, University of Guelph
& Director, Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre

A typical product is made, used, and discarded, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Researchers at the University of Guelph are developing greener products from renewable materials to help shift the province towards a circular economy.

A gradual disentanglement between the economy and the widespread consumption of finite resources is crucial for the fight against climate change. Most products have a linear life cycle — that is, they’re produced, used, and discarded. Experts now use the term “circular economy” to describe an alternative vision: a waste-free economy in which products are, to the maximum possible degree, reused, repaired, or remanufactured and upgraded.

Bioproducts — materials, chemicals, and energy derived from renewable biological resources — are an important part of the vision for a circular economy. The linear economy relies heavily on petroleum — a non-renewable, environmentally deleterious material — for everything from fuel to plastics and pharmaceuticals. A bio-based economy would see the development of greener alternatives to petroleum-derived from renewable biological sources like waste products from agriculture, forestry, and food processing.

Intensive biomaterials research at the University of Guelph

The University of Guelph Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre (BDDC) is helping lead Ontario’s transition to a bioeconomy. The centre draws on the combined efforts of plant biologists, chemists, and engineers to develop and commercialize biomaterials — another name for products derived from renewable, biological sources. “We’re an interdisciplinary team, since our research requires a broad range of expertise from experts in product life cycle analysis to individuals specializing in the technical side of development,” says Dr. Amar Mohanty, Professor and OAC Distinguished Research Chair in Sustainable Biomaterials, and Director of the BDDC.

“The development of biomaterials often involves incorporating the waste from industries like food processing and agriculture into a composite material,” says Dr. Mohanty. “A final product may not be 100% biobased or biodegradable but still contribute to the bioeconomy. At the end of the day, it’s about reducing our reliance on petroleum, which in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions.” 

For instance, most single-use coffee pods are notoriously wasteful because they’re difficult to recycle. The BDDC developed a compostable coffee pod from a mix of biobased plastic and coffee chaff — the skin of the coffee bean that’s normally discarded during the roasting process, which is considered post-industrial waste.

The coffee pod, which has been successfully commercialized since its development in 2015, not only eases the industry’s reliance on petroleum but gives a new life to waste material, diverting it from landfills.

Greening the auto industry with biomaterials

“We always look into how to integrate waste into our bioproducts. This increases their cost-effectiveness, and in turn the chance that they will make it to market,” says Dr. Mohanty. In keeping with this ethos, the BDDC is incorporating coffee chaff into another innovative product — this time for the automotive industry, which is a key area of innovation for the centre.

The BDDC is developing alternative car parts using coffee chaff in combination with traditional petroleum-derived materials. The parts not only lessen the amount of petroleum in a given automobile’s overall structure but are about 20% lighter than their petroleum-based counterparts. This plays its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, since a lighter car consumes less fuel.

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