‘Green chemicals:’ UW-Stevens Point, vegetable industry partner to find higher value of crop residue

A federal grant of nearly $500,000 will help University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point researchers work with the vegetable crop industry to explore commercial uses for crop residue. 

The Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST) was awarded a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant for $499,965. The Regional Innovation Strategies Program i6 Challenge is a competitive grant program promoting innovation and entrepreneurship across the country. The EDA received more than 170 applications and selected 25. 

The project will explore commercializing chemicals from residual organic materials that remain after specialty vegetable crops are processed.  

Vegetable harvesting and processing operations produce peels, stems and vines. Currently this material is managed either by land-spreading or use in animal feed. These residual materials contain numerous chemicals, including vitamins, sugars, proteins and other compounds such as antioxidants. 

Markets for so-called green chemicals -- including pigments, antioxidants and organic acids for personal care products -- have been growing at more than 10 percent annually, said Paul Fowler, WIST executive director. “We see an opportunity to tap this market with naturally occurring products extracted from vegetable residuals.” 

The expense and logistics of handling residual organic materials from agricultural product processing operations has long been a problem of agri-business, a $6 billion industry in Wisconsin. Extracting chemicals from these materials and assessing their commercial value may turn the problem into an opportunity. 

WIST will lead the public-private partnership in a “proof of concept center” that involves agri-business in nine counties in central and south-central Wisconsin. Working with producers, processors, researchers, economic development specialists and trade groups, the center will be a hub for entrepreneurial activity. 

Project participants include Del Monte Foods, which has three vegetable processing plants in the region; Heartland Farms, a central Wisconsin-based vegetable grower; Pavelski Legacy Partners, which manages and invests in a diverse portfolio of companies; Midwest Food Processors Association; and the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and WiSys Technology Foundation, a nonprofit supporting UW technology transfer, will provide advice on commercialization strategies.

The WIST laboratory at UW-Stevens Point will analyze the materials to determine the economic feasibility of extracting particular chemicals. Understanding the commercialization opportunities goes beyond that, Fowler said. 

“We want to understand which residual materials have the greatest potential for value gain through diversion to new uses. So a key to this project is the participation of Wisconsin vegetable growers and processors, who know how the materials are currently handled, what the costs are and so on,” he said. “We’re excited and gratified to have the support and participation of these growers, processors and their associations.” 

Wisconsin ranks second in United States for harvested acreage and total production of processing vegetables and third for production value. Vegetable crop production and processing supports nearly 30,000 jobs.

 The three-year project will begin March 1, 2016. Its total expected value of $1,016,811 includes in-kind contributions of nearly $400,000 from WIST and $116,880 from project participants, primarily in staff time.  

This project is expected to substantially benefit vegetable production and processing industries and increase economic activity, said Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association. “With the assets currently in place at UW-Stevens Point and the establishment of the Proof of Concept Center for vegetable production and processing residuals, we will be able to develop new opportunities for those low value materials that otherwise would not be pursued, or would be pursued but at a much slower pace. We believe significant business opportunities are available that will allow our members to be more competitive with new and expanded business.” 

Through a series of workshops, a steering committee of representatives from project participants will propose materials for evaluation based on their knowledge of the production and processing operations and residuals. WIST will evaluate and select extraction methods, identify technologies to isolate specific chemical compounds of commercial value, analyze them and work with partners in determining best candidates for commercialization. 

The goal is to evaluate eight to 12 residual streams and identify four concepts for commercialization. 

WIST was founded in 2010 as the entrepreneurial arm of UW-Stevens Point. It works to develop and transfer ideas and technology from the university to the private sector to help build Wisconsin’s economy. Part of the College of Natural Resources, it provides laboratory services, research and education for private business. 


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