From little things big things grow

Chemical engineer Associate Professor Fariba Dehghani is achieving astonishing results in two very different areas of research using nanotechnology.
Image of Fariba Dehghani

Based in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Associate Professor Dehghani’s research focuses on the processing of biomaterials, with particular emphasis on applications in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

The first project was initiated when she was approached by food manufacturer Agricure to help develop dietary supplements to improve the bone density of racehorses and poultry. Working with her colleague Dr John Kavanagh and a team of PhD students, she developed a cost-effective process for the production and extraction of super-vitamin MK-7, a naturally occurring compound that helps to reduce the risk of a number of common ailments including arterial calcification, cardiovascular disease and varicose veins.

While MK-7 is found in rich concentrations in natto, a Japanese food made from fermented soybeans, Associate Professor Dehghani and her team have developed a simple process of producing and recovering the compound in concentrations eight times higher than those found naturally in natto.

“In this one-step process,” she explains, “MK-7 is naturally produced by the fermentation of bacteria found in rice straw and recovered via an edible oil that can be used in cooking. The oil plays three pivotal roles in the process: firstly as a nutrient for the bacteria, secondly as an anti-foaming agent and lastly as an extractant for MK-7.

The result is an efficient and cost-effective means of producing super-high concentrations of this health-enhancing compound, which will ultimately have applications beyond the originally intended beneficiaries of racehorses and poultry to benefit human health.

The second project aims to transform the biodegradable plastics industry by developing cleaner, greener, more cost-effective technology for the synthesis of polypropylene carbonate (PPC) polymers. Associate Professor Dehghani and her team are working on a process for creating carbon dioxide–based PPC polymers, which will be completely biodegradable and renewable and will have a wide range of applications from fully recyclable plastic shopping bags to restorative implants in the human body.

“The clean technologies we develop will make it possible to produce environmentally friendly plastics using waste CO2 for food packaging and biomedical applications. Converting captured CO2 into products such as chemicals, plastics or other commodities is pivotal in our attempts to reduce the need for volatile organic compounds.”

The project is being jointly funded by the Australian Research Council and ASX-listed bioplastics company Cardia Bioplastics, manufacturer of the world’s first carbon dioxide and starch–based carrier bag, and is expected to have enormous benefits to both the environment and human health.

In terms of the environment the project could have an international impact, by assisting in the reduction of carbon emissions in countries where geologic storage of CO2 is not possible. On the human health front, Associate Professor Dehghani says the resulting polymers could be used as alternatives for a range of biomedical applications including musculoskeletal tissue engineering and drug delivery, and in the treatment of bone diseases such as osteoporosis.