We consume more resources, thus we generate more waste. This revelation opened the defense of the thesis awarded the maximum grade with distinction for Riccardo Bevilacqua, a researcher from Biogroup (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela). The brand-new doctor saw his pioneering study on protein fermentation recognized, an advance that demonstrates the future of the CONSERVAL project and its circular economy model.
It is a remarkable milestone, especially taking into account that protein fermentation is a barely explored field, while the pandemic hit the experiments rather badly. Bevilacqua’s drive was nevertheless worth it, and now he calls for a “renewed effort in research for waste recovery” and warns that “it will take time to persuade the corporations”, despite the benefits of a circular model that “deals with two problems at once”: pollution and misspend.
Tell us about how you got settled in Galicia.
The luck Italians may have when taking this leap is that we are cousins, so to speak, so there was not a cultural shock. I believe that I adapted fairly well from the beginning, although I reckon that lots of colleagues made their part, and I am fortunate in that sense. Might not have been the same somewhere else.
How is it to work with Biogroup?
It is really cool. I thought it was just after my arrival. There are lots of people with different subjects and opinions. There are the ones working with me at biorefinery, but also pollutants removal, alternative technologies, biotics… You can never get bored, there are always interesting conversations going through.
When comparing with Italian research teams, you get to the conclusion that professors are much closer here. In Italy, the professor is some sort of demi-god; meanwhile, here I could say ‘how are you’ head-on, addressing by the given name, ‘hi Marta, hi Miguel’.
I must point out that this is a highly competitive group, you must give everything because the bar is so high. The fellows here are kind, and you know they are struggling just as you are, but there is so much pressure, though.
You had the opportunity, through Biochem, of working on the Conserval project. What did you contribute, and what did you take in exchange?
My Ph.D. may be split into two phases. Biochem funded me for the most part and made me understand what a researcher is. When finishing the Bachelor’s degree, you have no idea about working, which is not the same as a follow-up from college.
That program gave me the clues to become a good researcher, alongside my thesis’ directors, obviously. It opened my eyes and made me grow. What did I contribute? Well, I guess I gave good vibrations. You must always learn, but learning is not everything.
The stage in Conserval was shorter, but I was able to guide myself from the beginning, I knew what to do. I had a different mindset: here I can give more, I have my reasoning and I know which path to pursue. It was relatively less time, however, my own development in research made me more productive.
How do you recover waste, and what interest is it in the products obtained?
The idea is to convert, biologically, the organic-rich waste into by-products, platform compounds from which to develop the processes wanted.
In biorefinery, transforming waste into resources is not new; it is made at an industrial scale, using anaerobic digestion in order to produce biogas. Our research line of anaerobic fermentation is an evolution of the former: this way, waste leads to a higher commercial value by-product.
Volatile fatty acids have a larger monetary value, relatively, to that of biogas, and it leads to more applications. While biogas is burnt to generate energy in thermal power plants, acids split and purified may be converted into medicines, food integrators, and even biogas at a second stage, such as methane-rich gas, biomethane.
What impact may we expect from your research in the circular economy?
One must be humble and acknowledge that this is just the first step. My thesis will be useful for further research. We looked for a general effect when improving the protein fermentation via micronutrient adding; we never studied specific, traceable elements.
That being said, once the positive effects of a certain mixture are examined, combinations can be made in order to find synergies. For someone interested in operational conditions, those already put in place may be discarded or refined, because we already know that the sugar-protein co-fermentation may work with various ph.
On the other hand, I believe that my thesis demonstrates that waste can be recovered, yet waste has not the attention it deserves. Discards can be avoided with these more flexible solutions.
From a local point of view, Galicia produces eighty percent of the fish cans in Spain. A great part of the water waste from this industry is protein-rich, and that is why this research has a direct, local application.
Projects such as Conserval try and raise awareness about the benefits of a circular economy. How to achieve this?
I personally think that people outside researching do have a glimpse of this reasoning, and are already thinking about waste recovery and its value. Long term, waste recovery must reach society through corporate.
Waste is not something to get rid of, spills are not something necessary, nor avoiding controls. Waste can be recovered and transformed through bioprocesses. This model can deal with two problems at once, avoiding pollution and making a profit from discarded products. We must explain this to the corporations before we reach the public.