UK-India collaboration successfully tackles industrial waste from sugarcane processing in India

Scientists in the UK and India have successfully come together to take a major by-product of the sugarcane industry and turn it into the valuable bio-based chemical, citric acid. This £1.8 million project, sponsored by the Newton Bhabha Fund, brought together academics along with UK and Indian companies to work in partnership to reduce industrial waste and generate innovation in industrial biotechnology. 

The consortium included Indian partners: the International Centre for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology and Natems Sugar Ltd. UK partners were the University of York, the Biorenewables Development Centre, Jesmond Engineering, Prozomix and Wilson Bio-Chemical. 

The Newton-Bhabha Fund is a programme funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, both part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), as well as the Department for Biotechnology (DBT) India.

Addressing a global issue 

India is the world’s second largest producer of sugar, and the industry is one of the largest rural employers. With all this productivity comes significant industrial waste in the form of bagasse – the fibrous material left after crushing the sugarcane plant. This biomass is currently used to power the sugar factories. However this process is inefficient and does not use all of the available bagasse. 

A collaborative, multi-step approach 

To find a solution, the project partners shared knowledge and expertise to develop a methodology to use the sugarcane waste for the production of citric acid – a chemical with many different uses and high market value.

The initial step is to pre-treat the bagasse by warming it and adding a dilute alkaline solution. The pre-treatment breaks down the fibrous structure of the biomass making it easier to handle and for chemicals to interact with it. The process was optimized by researchers at the University of York taking into consideration engineering advice from Jesmond Engineering and Wilson Bio-Chemical on future commercial operation and process costs. The pre-treatment validation was achieved at a 20L scale using a rotating vessel designed and commissioned by Jesmond Engineering. 

Next, the University of York and ICGEB researchers, with the support of enzyme specialist company Prozomix, developed the bespoke enzyme cocktail that when added to the bagasse breaks it down into a mixture rich in sugars. 

This sugary mixture then has a fungus, Aspergillus, added to it. The ability of the fungus to feed on the sugar and turn it into citric acid was extensively studied and optimised during the project by researchers at the University of York and ICGEB. The whole process was put together and tested at a larger scale using state-of-the-art facilities at the Biorenewables Development Centre. 

Dr Deborah Rathbone, Bioscience Innovation Team Leader, Biorenewables Development Centre said; 

“We have shown in this project that we can use the sugars from this waste product to produce citric acid. This versatile chemical has applications in a number of different sectors, such as food, pharmaceutical, cosmetics and so on, because it’s generally regarded as safe and a material that can be eaten.”

This collaboration has had a positive impact for all the partners involved. In particular, it has allowed the academic researchers to understand the project from a commercial perspective. 

The journey towards commercialisation 

During this four year project, the partners have proved that citric acid can be produced from biomass such as bagasse. To assess the economic potential of this process, the next step is to attract further investment to carry out processing trials at 100L scale. 

Dr Ramnath Nandakumar, Managing Director, Natems Sugars added;

“We now want to take the project to the next step in terms of scale up and commercialisation. If this is successful, Natems’ ultimate goal would be to build a factory to run this process which would be the first of this kind, both in the world and in India.”

To find out more about the steps involved to develop citric acid and hear from the partners involved, watch the short video


Notes to editors:

About the Newton Bhabha Fund: The Newton-Bhabha Fund is a high-profile programme funded by The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, both part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), as well as the Department for Biotechnology (DBT) India. The programme supported collaborative UK-India research programmes which focus on critical socio-economic challenges relevant to international development.

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Further information: 

Contact Dr Anna Alessi, Project Manager,

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