Project Highlights:

  • Develop new methodology for reclamation of valuable peptides from waste to reduce waste streams
  • Training in organic and analytical chemistry specific to the environmental aspects of food waste
  • Application driven research focussed on reducing environmental impact and improving recycling in agricultural and food waste industries.

Efficiency is a significant driver in the management of the resources available to mankind. Recycling of products is a well-known method supporting this, but in some areas, including the recycling of complex biochemicals, the technology is somewhat limited.
This proposal falls into the scope of the NERC Resource Recovery From Waste Programme. ‘In 2010, the UN Environment Programme estimated 11•2 billion tonnes of solid waste was collected. Even more waste went uncollected. The total amount produced is rising each year, and will continue to do so. Given a growing global population that is matched by highly dynamic product development for human needs, current solutions to waste management reliant on disposal are unsustainable. Despite recent technological advances, however, there is limited recovery of physical resources such as nutrients,’
Protein containing wastes arise from several industries including the agricultural, retail, animal feedstock and pharmaceutical industries. A number of these, such as collagen feature a regular arrangement of amino acids in their structural sequence. This more regular structure suggests that economic quantities of proteins can be extracted, hydrolysed and purified to yield relatively simple mixtures of valuable peptides that display commercially relevant properties [1] such as antioxidant, antimicrobial, anticancer and antihypertensive behaviours.

The premise of this project is that ‘upcycling’ food/agricultural waste into high-value products is possible by the use of selective chemical catalysts developed for other hydrolytic reactions [2].

This can be performed more cost-effectively with high selectivity for the hydrolysis of proteins to yield valuable peptides. This will also avoid the use of more expensive, and limited enzymatic methods to hydrolyse the proteins to peptides [1] or the expensive sequential chemical synthesis of peptides. These activities generate a significant anthropogenic impact in their wastes that this research will hence act to remove.
To purify the resultant protein broth a highly selective technique called Molecularly Imprinted Polymers (MIPs) will be employed. These robust, reusuable materials will be targeted to collect the peptides and concentrate them into a usable form.

Schematic of the hydrolysis and selective capture.


In previous projects at the OU heterogeneous catalysts were successfully developed comprising zinc(II) or nickel(II) salts on a chelating resin Dowex M4195 (i.e. a commercial resin with metal binding groups [2]) or immobilising enzymes on the waste material chitosan. Most importantly these are readily recoverable at the end of the process via filtration.  These catalysts will be further tested on known protein substrates, e.g. gelatin and whey protein (which are food wastes), to demonstrate their efficiency.

Molecularly imprinted polymers will be developed to selectively target the peptides of interest. These will be based on acrylate polymer materials, using a non-covalent method. These will be tested using solid phase extraction technology.

Once the catalysts and MIPs have been developed protein rich waste will be fed to these catalysts where it will be digested. The digest will be collected, purified using the MIP absorbents. The resultant peptide rich eluents will be analysed to demonstrated proof of principle to attract industrial support as the wastes will arise from a range of industries from feathers and egg shells from poultry through to fish wastes from salmon farming.

Studies of system efficiency and scale-up potential will conclude the experimental design. This will be performed alongside potential industrial partners.

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to CENTA research themes. 

Specific to this project the student will gain training and experience in catalyst design/synthesis and chromatographic methods, including SPE and HPLC/UPLC.  MIP design and synthesis will be performed and include molecular modelling provided via collaborators at the University of Leicester.  The student will have the chance to visit external laboratories to apply the developed methodology.

In addition to scientific skills, the student will be trained in a variety of transferrable skills including public speaking, writing for a variety of audiences, and interactions with potential industrial partners.

The student will present at relevant meetings on resource recovery from NERC and FoodWaste Net along with specialised meeting on MIPs.


Year 1: Catalyst design and testing using known protein models.  MIP design and testing using expected peptide targets.

Year 2: Optimisation of catalyst/MIP protocol. Exploration of catalyst/polymer formats.

Demonstration of system on protein rich food waste.

Year 3: Optimisation of overall protocol. Efficiency studies. Exploration of industrial applications and scale-up. Industrial placement.

Further Details

Students should have a strong background in inorganic, or organic chemistry and enthusiasm for interdisciplinary, or environmental chemistry.  Experience of catalytic systems, or polymer chemistry is desirable. The student will join a well-established synthetic team researching molecular imprinting at the Open University.

Please contact nicholas.turner@open.ac.uk  for further information.

Applications should include:

Applications should be sent to


by 5pm on  25th January 2017