Processing Biochemicals from Paper Waste

As readership of paper publications has declined, paper production has shifted to serve the growing market in online sales and associated shipping.

“Packaging paper production in the U.S. has been growing at more than double the rate of the rest of the economy,” says Bandaru
Ramarao, professor of paper and bioprocess engineering at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and director of the Empire State Paper Institute.

Ramarao and his business partner, Bhavin Bhayani, are developing technologies to use waste produced during the processing of paper for shipping cartons to create biofuels. Together, they established a startup venture, Avatar Sustainable Technologies.

Most packaging is made from recycled paper. Recycling involves chopping up used paper, mixing it with water and chemicals, then heating it, which breaks it down into strands of cellulose, a type of organic plant material. The process also produces undesirable gritty fiber waste fragments. The fragments slow down paper machines and reduce production.

“The problem,” says Ramarao, “is that they are solid waste and you have to pay to landfill them.” Avatar has developed a process using enzymes to convert these waste fragments into useful byproducts that can be used to make biochemicals, including biofuels and bioplastics, essentially replacing fossil carbon with natural carbon in their processing. A project with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) could advance the technology further. NREL has engineered a new, more reactive enzyme that could speed the process at lower cost.

Avatar won a Small Business Vouchers Pilot award from the U.S. Department of Energy to work with NREL to conduct studies using this new enzyme. The investigation is also supported by a competitive award from the SyracuseCoE Innovation Fund. “This could lead to a better and shorter process, saving money and energy,” says Bhayani. Not to mention the boost the company receives collaborating with NREL. “We get exposure at a whole new level within the industry,” he says.

Avatar got its start in 2013 when Bhayani was a doctoral student at SUNY ESF and won $10,000 from SyracuseCoE in an award made through the Raymond von Dran IDEA student competition. The company is located in the SyracuseCoE headquarters building
and uses space within SUNY ESF’s Biofuels Pilot plant. Bhayani says it would be challenging for Avatar to continue without support from SyracuseCoE.

“This is a difficult time because funding in this area has dried up due to changing priorities of the current administration,” he says. “The SyracuseCoE Innovation Fund has helped fill the gap and keeps us moving forward.”