A groundbreaking technology developed by researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale could help solve two major global issues at once – food insecurity and plastic waste accumulation. Their system, called μBites, can convert biomass and plastic waste into edible protein sources through an ingenious process.

It all starts with oxidative hydrothermal dissolution (OHD), a technique invented a decade ago by SIU’s Ken Anderson. OHD uses water, heat, pressure, and oxygen to break down the carbon-based structures in biomass and plastics into a slurry of water-soluble carbon molecules. This nutrient-rich slurry is then fed to hungry yeast strains, which rapidly convert it into protein biomass.

The yeast protein can then be supplemented with additives to create different flavors, textures, and aromas suited for human or animal consumption. As a proof of concept, the researchers 3D printed cookies made from μBites protein and had them tested by SIU’s Fermentation Science Institute. The cookies scored a very respectable 6.5 out of 9 on the food acceptability scale, with high marks for aroma, color, shape, and texture.

While the initial target was creating foods for deep space exploration (the project received a $25,000 grant from NASA), the μBites system could have tremendous benefits here on Earth as well. It operates using minimal water and space, cuts back on plastic pollution, and reduces the need for additional carbon sources in food production. Recipes can be tailored for the specific nutritional and cultural needs of different populations.

As the realities of climate change usher in an era of food scarcity for millions, technologies like μBites could provide a sustainable solution – transforming discarded waste into vital nutrient sources. Of course, getting the public to accept and embrace these waste-derived foods is one of the major remaining hurdles.

But if the prospect of eating recycled plastic doesn’t deter you, keep an eye out for more updates on SIU’s remarkable edible waste research in the journal Cell Press. The idea of getting power bars and cookies from trash may take some getting used to, but it could be the future of food.

Read more about their research 

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