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UCC scientists research new uses for farming wastewater

by Samantha Calthrop

Dairy and milk production creates a large amount of waste products, with outputs of grease, protein, or discarded whey and trimmings. All that nutrient-rich substance is simply thrown away— but could be put to better use, says UCC’s Newtrients research project.

The EPA-funded project is headed by plant scientist Prof. Marcel Jansen, who is researching techniques to grow and process duckweed using this wastewater, which can then be used to create animal feed. Duckweed, or specifically Lemna minor, is a rapidly-growing, high-energy aquatic plant. For most of history it’s simply been a common source of pond-scum, but in recent years, its high energy production and nutrient richness have began attracting it attention as both a product and a possible carbon sink.

UCC’s Dr. Niall O’Leary is also involved in the project, researching how to use the discarded fats and proteins to create bio-plastics. Newtrients have had their first peer-reviewed research paper published just a few weeks ago, on January 7th.

While the issue of milky wastewater may not sound huge, the waste of Ireland’s huge dairy industry has the highest pollution potential, with disastrous consequences if the waste is left untreated. That waste also happens to be some of the most expensive and difficult to treat, with only a small amount being re-used; whey, buttermilk, and greasy water are all by-products of dairy processing, much of which simply gets discarded. The waste is rich in fats and nutrtients, though, and many scientists are scrambling to come up with a use for it.

Ireland’s dairy industry is also coming under increasing pressure for more self-contained, economic solutions, with dairy farmers suffering from cattle inbreeding, expensive imported feed, and large outputs of water pollution. It’s also rapidly growing, with increasing demand for exports of Irish milk and butter products.

“Sustainable food production is essential if we wish to have the same quality and quantity of produce available to us in the future,” reads the Newtrients website, “Consideration needs also be given to sustainable milk production, and especially sourcing of sustainable animal feeds to replace high protein feeds imported from across the globe.”

The Newtrients consortium is set to hold a workshop at the Environmental Research

Institute at University College Cork on resource recovery from dairy processing effluent later this year.