Cello-gum turns coconut jelly biowaste into additives

(Image: Chulalongkorn University)

Researches from the Petroleum and Petrochemical College at Chulalongkorn University have discovered cello-gum, which transforms coconut jelly biowaste into food ingredients.

Cello-gum is a nanocellulose product derived from coconut jelly, utilising raw materials abundant in Thailand. The residual jelly scraps, typically discarded as waste from the coconut jelly production process, are transformed into products that serve as additives in food, medicines, and cosmetics by applying bacterial cellulose to a chemical process using biotechnology. These additives can control the viscosity and provide texture to various products. Cello-gum is also noted for its purity, efficiency, and economic benefits compared to imported additives. 

The collaboration between the researchers and coconut jelly producer Ampol Food Processing had aimed to increase the value of waste generated by the food and agricultural industries, and aligns with the creation of a zero-waste society.

Coconut jelly, or nata de coco, a natural material whose scientific structure is bacterial cellulose, or BC, possesses strong mechanical properties, high porosity, and substantial water absorption capacity. It is easily moldable, biodegradable, and non-toxic. When used as a composite material or additive, coconut jelly enhances properties, such as ensuring good adhesion of other substances, and has various applications.

Dr Hathaikarn Manuspiya, director of the Centre of Excellence in Petrochemical and Materials Technology, lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Petroleum and Petrochemical College, and founder of BioNext Company, led the team, which also included Dr Sarute Ummartyotin, Dr Pongpat Sukhavattanakul, Phiyawat Sathidvongkun, and Varoon Varanyanond.

“Food stabilisers play a pivotal role in industries such as food, cosmetics, and medicine,” elaborated Dr Hathaikarn. “In rice milk products, for example, additive substances maintain colloidal properties, preventing the milk from separating into layers. This enhances the texture, giving the product the appearance of containing rice. The same goes for fruit juices that often incorporate cellulose-based additives to augment content.” 

“Upon discovering research on transforming coconut jelly scraps into high-value materials, the company expressed interest in such possibilities,” Dr Hathaikarn said. “Enormous amounts of scrap are generated daily during the production process and typically discarded through burning. By repurposing them into additives, we can contribute to reducing Thailand’s importation of various additives, which amounts to over ten billion baht per year.” 

Dr Hathaikarn said: “The additives are high in purity and safe. Given their market demand, Cello-gum stands as a good example of innovation with enormous potential for industrial development.”

The bacterium responsible for producing coconut jelly is Acetobacter xylinum, which can be cultured in a lab and fed with sugar and carbon sources, with coconut water serving as nourishment. In turn, the bacteria excretes fibre, a type of cellulose. Besides coconut jelly, various agricultural wastes, despite containing smaller amounts of cellulose, can also be turned into cello-gum.

“Unlike wood or other plants like bagasse or cassava, which yield only about 30% cellulose, coconut jelly provides more cellulose content. Additionally, the production process can incorporate bagasse, corn, and pineapple, albeit with potential alterations or additions,” said Dr Hathaikarn.

The collaborative project was selected as one of twelve finalists in the Rising Star Project by the Office of the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research, and Innovation in 2020. The initiative secured funding to establish a pilot plant for collecting coconut jelly scraps and transforming them into additives for use in the food, medicine, and cosmetics industries.

In 2023, cello-gum secured a place in the Angel Fund project. The success of its pilot plant has also prompted the establishment of Bionext Co, a spin-off company from the College of Petroleum and Petrochemicals, and Centre for Excellence in Petrochemical and Materials Technology. This company aims to expand commercial production capacities and collaborate with various large companies. To do so, Bionext will test work development, conduct research, and propose projects.